Bob Turner, Hideki Matsuyama
Courtesy Bob Turner

Tokyo Olympics an end goal for the American behind Japan sports icons

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FARMINGDALE, N.Y. — As the Tokyo Olympics near and interest generates in Japanese sports culture, an American father and son offer unique perspectives as right-hand men for two of Japan’s greatest athletes.

Bob Turner and his son, Allen, made a business out of acclimating Japan’s sports stars to life in the United States.

For decades, Japanese athletes could easily become icons without leaving the archipelago. Now, most of their time is spent in other countries, and mostly the U.S.

“It’s not just about becoming No. 1 in Japan,” said Bob Turner, a 66-year-old who has managed Japan’s best golfers on the PGA Tour for the last three decades, plus juggled work with Ichiro Suzuki in his early Seattle Mariners years. “They want to participate on the world stage and do very well at it.”

Bob was born in Washington, played high school golf in Northern California and attended BYU before a two-year Mormon mission to Japan, arriving in Sapporo in October 1972, eight months after it hosted the Winter Games.

Bob met his wife, Hiroko, and found his calling working for a sports promotion company, recruiting athletes for golf, tennis and marathon events. The list included Sam Snead, Billy Casper and Seve Ballesteros.

The family, including then-10-year-old Allen and his younger sister, Mika, moved back to the U.S. in 1987.

“It was time for them to be introduced to American culture,” Bob said.

Bob continued his work with golfers, but his role shifted from recruiting the world’s best to Japan to welcoming Japan’s best to the PGA Tour.

In 1993, Bob got a call from Naomichi “Joe” Ozaki, who decided to start playing regularly on the PGA Tour after winning 21 times on the Japan Golf Tour.

For the next eight years, Bob took care of Ozaki’s logistics and traveled with him to every tournament in the U.S. When Ozaki left the tour in 2001, Bob performed similar duties for Japan’s star of the 2000s, Shigeki Maruyama, for eight years.  

Bob has traveled with Japan’s current No. 1, Hideki Matsuyama, since he came over to the PGA Tour in 2013.

But the Turners are best known for their work in baseball. For five years, Bob managed baseball and golf clients. The biggest name on that list, and the biggest name in all Japanese sports, was Ichiro.

That’s where Allen comes in. In 1999, a Seattle Mariners scout whom Allen knew from high school ball said the team was going to sign Japanese pitcher Kazuhiro Sasaki. The club was looking for somebody to not only interpret and translate but also handle some on-field baseball work.

Allen, who began playing baseball in Japan at age 5, interviewed and got the job. The next season, the Mariners signed Ichiro. Allen and/or Bob has spent most of the last 19 MLB seasons with Ichiro. Allen moved with him to New York and Miami before last year’s return to Seattle and this year’s retirement. Ichiro still works for the Mariners’ front office, so Allen remains with the team, too.

Baseball will be played at the Olympics next year for the first time since 2008, but Ichiro has ruled out interest in suiting up.

MLB players are not expected to take part (they weren’t in baseball’s previous iteration, either). Japan’s roster should be made up of stars from the Nippon Professional league, perhaps the world’s second-best.

“That’s come up a lot, and [Ichiro] always, always says he respects Olympics,” Allen said, “but he believes that the Olympics should be for the amateurs, and the best amateurs go and participate in the Games.”

“Respect” and “honor” are two words that Americans often associate with Japanese sports.

Recall images of Japanese spectators at the FIFA World Cup cleaning up after themselves with trash bags in the stands.

In 2008, healthy Japanese gymnast Koki Sakamoto was withdrawn from the Olympic all-around final to give the spot to team leader Hiroyuki Tomita, who had scored five hundredths fewer in qualifying.

“[Sakomoto], I’m sure, felt it was the honorable thing to do,” NBC Olympics analyst Tim Daggett said at the time, noting his knowledge of Japanese sports from being coached by Makoto Sakamoto at UCLA.

“It’s a vertical society in Japan, where America is more horizontal where everyone is on the same level,” Bob said. “In Japan, it’s not that anybody’s better than anybody else, but if someone is older than you, you show them respect.”

That manifested in Allen’s childhood baseball days, when he woke up before dawn, rode his bike to the local diamond, practiced for an hour and then went to school.

The Turners lived near venerable Koshien Stadium, which opened a decade after Wrigley Field and hosts the national high school championship.

Allen idolized Randy Bass, a first baseman who bounced around five MLB clubs in six seasons before moving to the Hanshin Tigers, where he set the league’s single-season batting-average record (.389) that Ichiro could not break.

In 1985, Bass was one home run from tying the legendary Sadaharu Oh’s single-season record of 55 going into the last game. Facing a club managed by Oh, Bass reportedly drew four walks in five plate appearances

“To have somebody from America be that successful and a superstar was pretty cool,” Allen said. “Me being an American in Japan, even though I didn’t speak English, I looked different. The kids knew I was different.”

They were taught the same.

“[Allen] learned from a young age that you don’t argue with an umpire,” Bob said. “At the beginning of the game, you’ll take off your batting helmet when you go up to bat and tip it to the umpire. You don’t spit on the field. When your cleats touch the playing field, you’re running. You’re not walking or loafing. It’s dishonoring the game if you did. At the end of the game, you line up and everyone bows to the other team, you take off your hat and you say nice game. You do the same to the umpire.”

Ichiro, too, was brought up that way.

“Ichiro never threw a bat or threw a glove because it disrespects the maker of that bat or the maker of that glove that took a long time,” Bob said. “Not to say that Japan sports culture is better than here in the United States. I’m just saying that the culture of honor and respect is more demanded, I think, in Japan.”

Bob still goes back to Japan about twice a year. Since Tokyo was awarded the 2020 Games in 2013, he’s noticed storefronts with Olympic merchandise.

A 2018 survey published by Central Research Services in Japan showed that its most popular athletes were, in order, baseball players Shohei Ohtani and Ichiro, followed by figure skater Yuzuru Hanyu and tennis player Kei Nishikori.

A Japanese media research and analysis company recently reported that Hanyu received the most hours of major TV coverage of any athlete in 2018. He was followed by Ohtani, tennis player Naomi Osaka and then three more PyeongChang Olympic medalists.

“The Tokyo [1964] Olympics, Sapporo [1972], Nagano [1998], you still see documentaries about those,” Bob said. “More so than here in the United States, the Olympics are revered in Japan.”

Bob has never been to an Olympics. Neither has his primary client, Matsuyama, Japan’s top-ranked golfer the last five years who withdrew ahead of Rio due to Zika virus concerns. Matsuyama is planning on going to Tokyo. Bob is, too.

“That’s the finish line for me, hopefully,” Bob said.

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Leanne Smith leads U.S. gold medalists at para swim worlds

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Leanne Smith has never competed at a Paralympics. Came into this week’s world championships with zero world medals. But she leaves London with three individual golds, most for any American, one year before the Tokyo Games.

Smith, 21, won the 150m individual medley, 50m breaststroke and 100m freestyle in her classification, all in American record times. The last two titles came on the final day of the seven-day meet on Sunday.

Smith, diagnosed with a rare neurological muscle disease called dystonia in January 2012, began swimming in 2013. By 2017, she broke a world record and then debuted at the world championships with a best individual finish of sixth.

The U.S. finished with 35 total medals and 14 golds, ranking sixth in the overall standings. Ukraine, usually strong at the Paralympics, led the way with 55 medals. Full results are here.

Jessica Long, the second-most-decorated U.S. Paralympian in history with 23 medals, earned six this week — five silvers and a bronze — to give her 52 career world championships medals.

Two-time Paralympian Mallory Weggemann earned two golds this week, giving her 15 world titles in three appearances (her others being in 2009 and 2010).

She won 50m titles in the butterfly and freestyle. Weggemann won a 2012 Paralympic 50m free title but was fortunate just to make it back for Rio after a 2014 accident that she said was harder to come back from than her teenage paralysis. She left Rio with no medals but a resolve to return for a third Games in Tokyo.

“I’m two seconds away from bursting into tears,” Weggemann said after winning the first of her two golds in the 50m fly, according to U.S. Paralympics. “I had a really rough go these past three years since Rio, so to finally be back after busting my butt to be here, and to be here in London of all places, is absolutely incredible.”

Fellow Rio Paralympians McKenzie Coan and Robert Griswold added two golds a piece.

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Heimana Reynolds wins skateboard world title, nears an Olympic goal from age 10

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In February 2009, a 10-year-old Heimana Reynolds was profiled by his local NBC TV station on Oahu.

“My goal is to become a professional skateboarder and compete in the X Games and the Olympics,” he said, according to the report.

Skateboarding would not be added to the Olympics for another seven years. But here Reynolds is, age 21, having just won the world title in park, one of two skateboarding events that debut at the Games in Tokyo.

Reynolds, who wasn’t named to the four-man U.S. national team in March, consolidated his lead in the Olympic qualification rankings by prevailing over a pair of Brazilians in Sao Paulo on Sunday.

A shirtless Reynolds scored 88 points in the final, beating Luis Francisco (85.50) and Pedro Quintas (85).

No more than three Americans can make the Olympic team in the event, which will make it difficult if three-time Olympic halfpipe snowboarding champion Shaun White decides to continue his skateboarding pursuit. White was the sixth-best American, bowing out in the semifinals in 13th place on Saturday in just his second contest since returning to competitive skating last year.

Back to Reynolds. He grew up on the North Shore and attended the Punahou School, where Barack Obama is the most famous alum. His first name is Tahitian, reportedly referring to the power of Jesus’ crown of thorns.

Reynolds, the son of a surfer, proved a natural on land. After pre-teen media profiles, he blossomed into a world silver medalist last year. He won an Olympic qualifier in China in July to take the top spot in the Olympic rankings despite a best career X Games finish of sixth.

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