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Jim Allen

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THE HOT CORNER: NPB of this World, but not yet in it

by Jim Allen (Apr 10, 2008)

There were some surreal undertones two weeks ago when plans for the next World Baseball Classic, in 2009, were announced in Tokyo.

With the A's and Red Sox in town to--depending on one's viewpoint--either stage or upstage opening games, the WBC press conference was well attended by Major League Baseball's traveling circus of officials and media from here and the United States.

Although MLB's boss of bosses, Bud Selig, was absent due to plane trouble, it was a typically slick production. That should not surprise anyone, since MLB has reinvented itself in recent years into a very slick outfit. These guys know how to package a product and throw a party.

Yet, there was a sense of danger and doubt that morning. It had nothing to do with Selig's absence. Instead, it was something subtly stirred up by the omnipresent Kazuo Hasegawa.

The genial secretary general of Nippon Professional Baseball's commissioner's office is everywhere there is an NPB function. A former reporter, Hasegawa can often be found among journalists dispensing both official information and complaints about the never-ending troubles that are thrown in his lap.

So while it was no shock to see Hasegawa surrounded by a half-dozen reporters, sounding off on the 2009 WBC format, his presence sent a tiny but detectable shiver through the press conference's hosts.

Upon spotting Hasegawa holding court, one MLB official in from New York asked what the secretary general was saying. When the smart-ass answer was "probably talking about all the changes NPB wants to make," the MLB guy turned paler than pale and fled the scene.

NPB, it turned out, was not involved in the press conference, and has not accepted its invitation to take part in the next WBC. Hasegawa's presence there, however, was a reminder of potential trouble for tournament organizers.

The WBC, hosted by MLB and its players union partners, was first held in 2006, a year later than originally planned. Organizers wanted to stage the fledgling tournament in years without a soccer World Cup or Olympic Games, but were unable to get all the groundwork done in time for 2005. When the WBC finally took place a year later, it was ironic that the two finalists, Cuba and Japan, were probably the two hardest countries to bring on board.

Cuba was eager to participate, but intense negotiation was required to clear the hurdles established by the United States government's harsh anti-Cuban currency restrictions.

Japan, too, was eager to participate, on its terms--even if those terms were often spat out in random chunks through the media and were different from the ones already agreed to in November 2004.

Not only did NPB balk at the distribution of cash it had agreed to, the commissioners office neglected to inform the players union about the deal until late in the spring of 2005. Because of that, union executives didn't discuss the tourney until July and then recommended Japan not participate.

When NPB wasn't able to change the tournament's details in its favor, it threatened to boycott and sway two of Japan's former Asian colonies, Taiwan and South Korea, to follow suit. When support for a boycott failed to materialize, Japan reluctantly got with the program.

The first WBC was rife with ironies, and NPB's insistence that it hadn't actually agreed to play in the tournament has to be among the biggest--especially after the events of the past few months.

Hypocrisy alarms should have been going off loud and clear from here to New York this past February. That was when acting commissioner Yasuchika Negoro--a party to the original WBC deal NPB tried to back out of--expressed his opinion that pitcher Jeremy Powell be banned from baseball for his contractual indiscretions.

Despite Negoro's early rhetoric regarding Powell, the gap between what is said and what is done is often the game's norm.

After all, the World Baseball Classic is still an invitational for 16 national teams and thus not a real world championship--although that may change for 2013. And since many in MLB still arrogantly referring to its club champion as the world champion, we shouldn't be too harsh on NPB's famous foibles.


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