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THE HOT CORNER / A new rule Japan can do without

by Jim Allen (Dec 11, 2008)

If it were up to some people, Central League rookie of the year Tetsuya Yamaguchi would not be wearing a Yomiuri Giants uniform and G.G. Sato might not have been an All-Star or an Olympian.

In an effort to dissuade top amateurs from skipping out to play professionally abroad--as corporate league righty Junichi Tazawa has done--Nippon Professional Baseball is studying a plan to ban them from playing on their return to Japan.

One version under consideration would prevent NPB teams from signing players for two or three years after they returned to Japan, depending on their status when they left.

In that scheme, players who left after high school ball, such as Yamaguchi did when he signed a minor league deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks, would be barred from joining an NPB team for three years upon returning to Japan. Players such as Tazawa or Sato, who played Single-A ball after leaving Hosei University, would be barred for two seasons.

If such a rule were in force five years ago, Yamaguchi would not have been eligible to play until next season, while Sato would have twiddled his big thumbs for two seasons instead of joining Seibu in 2004.

Hopefully, cooler heads will prevail and NPB will elect not to throw the babies out with the bath water.

The only way to curb the talent drain is to raise the game. This, however, is a vast, complex undertaking. It's much, much easier to make rules, even if they lead nowhere and turn out to be counterproductive.

Former Nippon Ham manager Trey Hillman said that when he first arrived, he viewed Japan's fondness for the sacrifice bunt as simply an excuse--a culturally sanctioned out for those unwilling to take decisive action.

And though Hillman's Japan story could be titled "How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bunt," there is nothing to love about denying people the right to work--as a ban on returning players would do.

Since the Constitution grants everyone the right to work, such a rule could conceivably be struck down in court.

It's not enough that NPB uses a draft to deny amateurs the right to sell their services to the highest bidder. Some now want to punish those who aim for a higher goal.

When the news about Tazawa broke, the most common response from the teams was that there needed to be a formal rule to prevent others from going astray.

Instead of asking, "What do we need to do to make players want to stay?" the powers-that-be seem resigned to the idea that only barriers will prevent a talent drain.

Of course, that is the only answer if the teams firmly believe their game is going nowhere and NPB will never be able to rival Major League Baseball.

One hates to be rude, but that would be a pathetic stance in a nation with an unsurpassed passion for the game and a world-class economy. Japan should be churning out as much pro baseball talent as the United States.

NPB has really not tried to accommodate all the people with the passion and ability to play pro ball. The 12 teams are limited to drafting 120 players between them, and there is precious little playing time to spare for those they do draft.

In Japan, there are less than 2-1/2 games per farm team player. In North America, that ratio is around 5-1/2 to 1 and there are vastly more players involved.

More minor league teams, more games, and more chances for players to learn and grow would lead to more stars and better competition in Japan.

If the 12 teams judiciously upgraded the game's financial and physical infrastructure, NPB would start taking big steps toward rivaling MLB.

For now, however, the overriding concern seems to be about plugging leaks in an obsolete system rather than building something seaworthy.

A lot was made of Yamaguchi becoming the first rookie of the year who first signed as a developmental player. Few mentioned he was also the first rookie of the year to begin his career in America.

Unlike Tazawa, nobody cared when Yamaguchi went to the States. But it is hard to see how discouraging other youngsters like him would lead to a better game in Japan.


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