One of Marty Brown’s defining qualities as a manager is his ability to communicate. Brown traces it to his late father, Paul, who was a horse trader and auctioneer in his native Rolla, Missouri.
But Brown’s communication skills were put to the test when he took a managing job in Japan in 2006. One day, in his first season with the Hiroshima Carp, he spent a good five minutes communicating his displeasure to the umpires after a dubious call. Brown didn’t speak Japanese. He argued through an interpreter.
While Brown ranted, the home-plate umpire looked at his watch. Then, in unison, all four umps threw him out of the game. Brown didn’t comprehend that under Japanese rules, you could argue with an ump, even shove him. But if you exceeded five minutes, you got tossed.
Brown grabbed the first-base bag and heaved it into the outfield. The Japanese fans, unaccustomed to such indecorous behavior, went wild. Later, they made T-shirts and stick figures to honor Brown’s tantrum.
The Bisons manager has one of those little metal figurines on his desk in his office. Brown smiled as he recalled the incident Saturday before the Bisons hosted Louisville at Coca-Cola Field. He has fond memories of his five years as a manager in Japan.
He set records for ejections; he also became friendly with umpires and encouraged them to be tougher. He brought an American edge while respecting the quaint, conservative customs of Japanese baseball. The great Sadaharu Oh once told Brown he was changing the way people thought about the game.
Oh, Brown also met his second wife, Kyoko, while managing in Japan.
“She worked in the front office of the Hiroshima Carp when I was there,” Brown said. “She was an assistant to the owner. She was an English major. I was going through a divorce at the time and she helped me with sending the paperwork. It evolved from there. A year later, we were dating.
“She knows English a lot better than I know Japanese,” Brown said. “One day a week, we’d say we were only going to speak Japanese. It was as quiet around the house as you could imagine.”
Brown won over the people, but he didn’t win any championships. He was credited with reviving Hiroshima, a small-market franchise. After four years with the Carp, he spent a year with the Skakuten Eagles. But after a year, the Eagles hired a legendary Japanese manager.
Out of a job, Brown returned with Kyoko to the States. He managed Toronto’s Triple-A team in Las Vegas for two years. When the Blue Jays moved the operation to Buffalo, Brown returned to the Bisons, whom he managed to the International League title in 2004.
Brown says he’d return to Japan in a heartbeat. Managers are well-compensated, for one thing. But he’s also thrilled to be back in Buffalo, 10 years after taking the Bisons job the first time.
He never wanted to leave in the first place. But after the 2005 season, Cleveland decided that Torey Lovullo was ready to manage in Triple-A. Brown was asked to accept a lesser job in the organization.
“We’d had success,” Brown said. “There was nothing that dictated that I should leave, other than the fact that they wanted Torey in Triple-A. He was what we call a golden boy. So I was going to be re-positioned somewhere in the organization. I didn’t want to stop managing.
“The Japan thing just happened,” he said. “I didn’t even have to interview for that job. They knew who I was. I had played for [Hiroshima] for three years. I went over there and really enjoyed myself and made some money, more than I would have made doing this job.”
Brown says the experience made him a better manager. A lot of foreign players go to Japan and try to do things the American way. Brown quickly learned that it’s a different game. You don’t survive five years in Japan by fighting the customs. Later in his time there, Brown was described as the ideal personality for Japan.
“I was hungry and wanted to be there,” Brown said. “It’s disappointing to hear veterans say, ‘I’ll go to Japan and make some money’ at the end of their career. It’s not that easy. You have to adapt to the style of play. You have to understand, make adjustments, and be willing to give all the credit away.
“I think I learned more about differences in culture. I think I understand Latin players better because I was in Japan. It’s makes my job easier, knowing there’s cultural differences you can’t get around. You’ve got to find a way to mesh those.”
At age 50, he’s seen and done a lot. Brown has managed young teams and veteran squads. This year’s Bisons are a veteran-laden team. Only four players on the roster are 25 or younger. Brown knew that the standards were higher in Buffalo, that you’re expected to win.
“From our first meeting, the message was, ‘Whether you’re here for two days or five months, when you walk through that door it’s about winning,’ ” Brown said. “To me, this is a special place. It’s Buffalo.”
The message got through. Through Saturday’s game, the Bisons were 18-9 and atop the IL North. Last week, Brown set the modern-day Bisons record for managing wins with 254, on the same day the Bisons set a record for victories in April. They’re hitting over .300 as a team.
“He’s the same every day,” said Jim Negrych, the Buffalo native who leads the IL in batting. “There’s something relaxing about him. But there’s also an intensity where you don’t want to let him down. You’re going to play the game the right way or you’re doing to hear about it.
Brown dreamed of managing in the big leagues when he retired as a player at 32. That hasn’t changed. Of course, a team has to be interested.
“I haven’t been interviewed for a big league job. Ever,” Brown said. “That hurts me.”
That surprised me.
“Yeah, me too,” he said. “Me too. You’ve got to know somebody. You’ve got to have a sponsor. Obviously, I don’t have one.”
Brown acknowledged that baseball management has become a young man’s game. The new guys have their favorites. His time might have passed him by. If so, it’s Buffalo’s gain. How many towns see a championship manager return to the scene of past glory?
On Friday night, Brown was at it again. In the eighth inning, he got ejected for arguing a called strike. He got his money’s worth, kicking dirt on home plate on his way out. The Bisons won in extra innings.
Brown’s message was the same as it was a decade ago. Winning matters here. The fans loved it. Anyone for T-shirts?