TOKYO (TR) – During his 18 years with Japanese pro baseball’s Yakult Swallows, Atsuya Furuta, typically sporting a pair of wire-framed glasses, was one of the most recognizable faces in the game.
Known for his leadership, having been the head of the players’ union during a labor strike and a player-manager for two seasons late in his career, Furuta is now looking to take advantage of that image and set an example that he hopes will gather momentum.
The current focus of his efforts is the fundraising website Just Giving Japan. Started in Britain more than a decade ago, Just Giving launched here last March. “In Japan, there is no philanthropic culture,” explains Furuta, dressed in a striped blue shirt and beige jacket, during an interview at the end of last year in Tokyo’s Roppongi district. “In the West, there is a sense of giving. For Japan, it’s not a matter of Japanese people not wanting to give; rather, they have a hard time figuring out how to do it.”
For the former catcher and two-time league most valuable player, he is showing the way by pushing his 45-year-old body even more than he did when he was playing professionally. Last year, he raised funds by competing in triathlons in Honolulu and Los Angeles and last month he ran in the Tokyo Marathon.
For that race, Furuta was collecting donations for the Suginami Ward-based nonprofit organization Katariba, which provides high school kids with a healthy living and learning environment. “Kids having trouble in school or those contemplating suicide are those who I would like to help,” he says.
Through Furuta’s Just Giving message board, supporters and well-wishers pledge money or offer words of encouragement (“Give it your best!”). For the triathlon in Hawaii, he raised almost 900,000 yen.
Few could argue that Furuta has given anything less than his all at every stage of his career. After being drafted from the industrial leagues by the Swallows in 1989 (following his silver medal win with Japan in the Seoul Olympics the year before), the Hyogo Prefecture native says he knew that donning a facemask and chest protector was his calling. “I wanted to play against the best,” he says. “So when that opportunity came up, I knew I had to take it.”
It wasn’t long before he showed his talent, winning the Central League batting title with a .340 average in his second season (1991) and being voted the league MVP two years later. He picked up the same award in 1997, when he batted .322 (to place third in the Central League) and led the Swallows to victory in the Japan Series, in which he was voted the series MVP.
After a subpar 1998 campaign, in which he batted .275, Furuta returned to form the following season, being named to his sixth “Best Nine” team and garnering his 10th Gold Glove.
Knee problems, however, gradually began to take their toll. Yet, he showed that he could still wield the stick in 2003, when he cracked 23 home runs, four of which came on consecutive at-bats on June 28. He upped that season total by one in 2004.
That year, though, was overshadowed by events away from the ballpark. As head of the Japan Professional Baseball Players Association, Furuta led a two-day strike against the owners of the 12 NPB teams.
The dispute, the first of its kind in Japanese baseball history, concerned a proposal by the owners to merge the Pacific League’s Kintetsu Buffaloes and the Orix Blue Wave and consolidate the two leagues. “Shrinking the whole baseball market in order to protect business interests is very dangerous,” Furuta says. “If the whole pie is smaller, there is no room for growth.”
The strike ended when it was agreed that the two Pacific League outfits would combine but another team (the Rakuten Golden Eagles) would be added, while the leagues would remain separate. “It’s been a while since the strike,” he adds. “If you look back, the results have been great.”
Early in his career, Furuta played under the tutelage of skipper Katsuya Nomura, the former catcher and five-time Pacific League MVP who led the Swallows to three Japan Series titles. Nomura had been Japan’s last player-manager (for the Nankai Hawks in 1977), until Furuta did the same for the Swallows during the 2006 season, a time when the team was struggling.
“It had been a while since the fans of Japanese baseball had seen a player-manager,” he says. “The Swallows’ fans wanted to see if such a change would transform the team, and I really wanted to meet that expectation and the challenge.”
One of the first tests he faced concerned his relationship with the players. “When you are doing both,” he says of the two roles, “I realized that you can’t let emotion take over; you must also maintain rationality. This was important in deciding about whether to cut or bench a player.”
The Swallows finished 2006 with a 70-73-3 record and third in the league. Furuta retired from the game the following season.
Since leaving baseball, he has become something of a writer. His series of baseball guides under the Furuta’s Formula title includes 2009’s guide for catching, a look at calling signals from behind the dish, and “Batter’s Bible,” which was released last year and details hitting fundamentals.
Furuta says he wants to continue to promote the game that was his life for so many years and, as with Just Giving Japan, reach out to young people. “I simply want to continue engaging in activities that will boost interest in baseball,” he says.
Note: This article originally appeared in the March issue of iNTOUCH, the magazine of the Tokyo American Club.