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THE HOT CORNER: Nothing new about NPB's latest trouble

by Jim Allen (Feb 28, 2008)

It was a tough call for the commissioner when the big pitcher signed contracts with two teams. But baseball's top boss stepped in, settled the issue and the rest was history.

The year was 1956, the commissioner was Nobori Inoue and the pitcher was teenager Tetsuya Yoneda, who signed contracts with both the Hankyu Braves and Hanshin Tigers.

Although Yoneda had worked out with the Hanshin Jaguars--the Tigers' farm club--Inoue stopped that after the Braves complained. Inoue then met with the pitcher, examined the contracts and assigned him to Hankyu.

In Yoneda's case, it was simple because the Braves' deal was first, was without flaws and his parents had been present at the signing.

The commissioner was reportedly swayed by the pitcher's desire to pitch for Hankyu. Yoneda said later he thought his chances for playing time were better with the Pacific League weakling Braves than with the powerhouse Central League Tigers.

With little fanfare, Yoneda joined the Braves, started 18 games and relieved 33 times as a 19-year-old. He went on to win 350 games in his Hall of Fame career.

That Yoneda was able to accomplish all that speaks to his mental toughness. One doesn't just luck into 350 wins because of physical talent.

Yet, when talk has turned to current pitcher Jeremy Powell, too many people seem to regard him as greedy and deserving of punishment for having signed contracts with both the Orix Buffaloes and the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks--even though the Orix deal was more shadow than substance.

While Powell's case is rare in this era, it was commonplace in Yoneda's, when every amateur was a free agent. The problem ended, for the most part, when the teams colluded to limit amateurs' negotiating power by instituting a draft in 1965.

Since then, there have been many loud disputes when a player refused to sign his contract and had to be traded or sold. As often as not, those troubles arose with Orix or the team it merged with, Kintetsu. Yet those problems were negotiated without players being threatened with punishment.

The most famous exception came when amateur pitcher Suguru Egawa and the Yomiuri Giants tried to create a loophole in the draft system and claim the pitcher was a free agent on the day before the 1978 draft. A contract was signed and the Giants tried to have the next day's draft nullified by boycotting it. Neither tactic worked, the Tigers won Egawa's rights in the draft and Egawa said he'd never be a Tiger.

In addition to losing all their draft picks because of their boycott, the ensuing settlement required the Giants to send quality pitcher Shigeru Kobayashi to the Tigers in exchange for Egawa, who was then suspended for two months.

This is pretty extreme in a country where bumping an umpire is often not enough to earn an ejection.

When one coach and 19 players were convicted of tax evasion prior to the 1998 season, the harshest punishment NPB meted out was an eight-week suspension for Hawks star Hiroki Kokubo.

Powell, who hasn't even broken the law, appeared headed toward an unprecedented three-month suspension, and there are people who would like to see him out of baseball completely.

"I believe he should be made ineligible," an NPB executive told The Hot Corner this week. "If he is allowed to make a deal with one team and then go to SoftBank, other players will feel free to do the same."

In other words, let's make an example out of him and not worry whether it is high-handed or arbitrary.

Let's be honest. Both sides have applied some spin to their stories. Orix's assertion that it had a complete deal is a farce. Orix said the leagues "commonly accept faxed uniform player contracts," but sources in both leagues say those situations are limited to the end of June.

"It is common when teams are trying to register players before the June 30 deadline, not in January," said CL planning director Masaaki Nagino.

Pacific League secretary general Shigeru Murata confirmed that Orix's assertion was nonsense.

If one wants to rid Japanese baseball of troublemakers, one could do worse than start with the Orix Buffaloes.


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