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THE HOT CORNER: Mad Buffalo disease strikes again

by Jim Allen / Daily Yomiuri Sportswriter (Feb 7, 2008)

Mad Buffalo disease has broken out once more in Kansai as Orix finds itself embroiled in yet another messy dispute with a player who wants nothing to do with the team.

What seemed like a simple deal blew up in both parties' faces this past week as Jeremy Powell got fed up with Orix's typical dithering, and decided to try a different team--unfortunately not before signing and faxing the club a standard contract.

Orix, which announced Powell's acquisition prematurely on Jan. 11, didn't seem to get the message that the pitcher wanted out. Of course, not getting the message is what this organization excels at. When the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks announced they had a deal with the pitcher on Jan. 29, it became obvious that what Orix has is a failure to communicate.

Now the lines are drawn in the sand with the Buffs demanding Powell play for them whether he wants to or not, and the Hawks, not surprisingly, backing the pitcher's claim that he did nothing wrong.

At the heart of the disagreement is not whether Powell signed a contract, but whether Orix then tried to change the terms, specifically the conditions of a buyout option for 2008, and whether or not Powell's agent informed Orix that the pitcher was no longer interested.

Orix officials say the team neither changed any terms or received any word that Powell was pulling out. Now that Pacific League president Tadao Koike has said Powell should play for the Hawks, Buffaloes executives must be asking why everyone is taking sides against them. However, what they should be asking themselves is why this kind of thing keeps happening to them.

When the Orix BlueWave merged with the Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes in 2004, it seems Orix acquired not just a new nickname but also Kintetsu's habit of front-office foul-ups. For those of you scoring at home, here are a few recent items:

--In 2002, Kintetsu agreed to post closer Akinori Otsuka to the majors, but the Buffaloes bungled the paperwork. Otsuka refused to play for them anymore, held out in 2003 and had to be sold for loose change to the Chunichi Dragons.

--When Orix and Kintetsu merged in 2004, then Orix president Takashi Koizumi promised that no Kintetsu players would be forced to play for Orix if they didn't want to. Unfortunately, one of the unwilling was Kintetsu ace Hisashi Iwakuma. Koizumi promptly reneged. Koike suggested Iwakuma play just one season for Orix. Iwakuma, however, would not and the Buffaloes ended up selling him to the expansion Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles.

--A year ago, Orix got into an ill-tempered public shouting match with Norihiro Nakamura, who was eventually released and wound up as Japan Series MVP with the Dragons.

When one moves beyond the fact that Powell signed a document that in retrospect he shouldn't have, his case is not that different from Iwakuma's or Nakamura's. Orix had the rights to both players but could keep neither of them, simply because they didn't want to work for the Buffaloes.

It's a universal rule, but one that many baseball teams just don't grasp. These companies operate under antiquated rules that declare indentured servitude the natural order, so why would things such as a player's intent matter?

In 2004, Koike insisted on Orix's rights to Iwakuma. Last week, the PL chief was under no such illusion when he said Powell should play for SoftBank. After all, the pitcher had agreed to complete terms with the Hawks but was nowhere near signing off on whatever the Buffaloes had in mind for him.

Koike said that without Powell's willingness to play ball, Orix's contract was meaningless. In order to balance things out, Koike tried to make like King Solomon and suggested cutting Powell in half--OK, not the pitcher himself but his season. The president said Powell should not be able to suit up for SoftBank until June 23.

It was a nice try on his part but it made no dent in the issue.

Since SoftBank is unhappy to be getting half a pitcher, and the Buffaloes, who act like mad cows at the drop of the hat, are now foaming at the mouth, don't expect a quick or sensible solution.


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