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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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Survey shows Japan’s favorite sports for Tokyo Olympics

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Japanese men and women are most interested in swimming, gymnastics and the marathon at the Tokyo Olympics, according to a survey published Friday.

The survey, conducted in April with 1,207 responses from men and women 20 years and older, according to Kyodo News, revealed the following favorite sports for the 2020 Tokyo Games:

  1. Swimming
  2. Gymnastics
  3. Track and Field (Marathon)
  4. Baseball/Softball
  5. Table Tennis
  6. Soccer
  7. Judo
  8. Volleyball
  9. Track and Field (Non-Marathon)
  10. Tennis

Japan has a history of success in many of those sports.

Kosuke Kitajima is regarded by many as the greatest breaststroker in history after sweeping the 100m and 200m at the 2004 and 2008 Olympics. Before winning any Olympic medals, Kitajima was invited to the Imperial Palace to meet Emperor Akihito. He later moved to Los Angeles to get away from the celebrity lifestyle in Japan.

Japan has active star swimmers in Kosuke Hagino, who won the 400m individual medley in Rio, and Rikako Ikee, a promising 17-year-old sprint freestyler and butterflier.

Japan is also home to the man regarded as the greatest gymnast of all time — Kohei Uchimura, who won all eight Olympic and world all-around titles from 2009 through 2016. Japan once had a men’s gymnastics dynasty — winning every Olympic team title from 1960 through 1976 — and captured team gold in 2004 and 2016.

Some of Japan’s most memorable Olympic moments came in the marathon —Koichi Morishita‘s silver medal in 1992 and then Naoko Takahashi and Mizuki Noguchi‘s back-to-back women’s marathon gold medals in 2000 and 2004.

Japan won the last Olympic softball title in 2008, upsetting the U.S. in the final. Baseball and softball return to the Olympics in 2020 for the first time since the 2008 Beijing Games and are not guaranteed to remain on the Olympic program beyond Tokyo.

The survey also asked respondents to name their favorite athletes, foreign or domestic, with the following results:

1. Shohei Ohtani (Baseball)
2. Ichiro (Baseball)
3. Yuzuru Hanyu (Figure Skating)
4. Kei Nishikori (Tennis)
5. Mao Asada (Figure Skating, retired)
6. Shigeo Nagashima (Baseball, retired)
7. Hideki Matsuyama (Golf)
8. Hayato Sakamoto (Baseball)
8. Hideki Matsui (Baseball, retired)
10. Senichi Hoshino (Baseball, died in January at age 70)

Of those athletes, Nishikori, Matsuyama and Sakamoto could compete in the Tokyo Olympics. MLB players, like Ohtani, are not expected to debut in the Olympics in 2020.

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David Ortiz rips off jersey, reveals ‘Girl Power’ shirt with Aly Raisman

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Seven Winter Olympians and Paralympians threw ceremonial first pitches at the Boston Red Sox home opener Thursday, but it’s what happened with a Summer Olympian moments later that created buzz.

Red Sox legend David Ortiz and six-time Olympic gymnastics medalist Aly Raisman took the field to yell “Play Ball!” at Fenway Park.

Before taking the mic, Ortiz ripped open his white jersey to reveal a black T-shirt with the words “GIRL POWER” in white.

Ortiz and Raisman have been friends since Raisman threw a ceremonial first pitch at an August 2012 Red Sox game following her first Olympics in London.

Raisman, a native of Needham, Mass., has attended a gala and golf tournament benefitting Ortiz’s children’s charity and a 2015 Christmas Eve gathering at Ortiz’s home.

Raisman threw another first pitch at an August 2016 Red Sox game, where Ortiz famously wore her medals.

The PyeongChang Olympians and Paralympians who threw first pitches Thursday were reportedly hockey players Kacey Bellamy, Brianna DeckerMeghan Duggan and Amanda Pelkey, Nordic skiers Jake Adicoff and Dan Cnossen and luger Chris Mazdzer.

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VIDEO: U.S. curler throws first pitch to wrong catcher