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THE HOT CORNER: Needed: Witnesses for defense

by Jim Allen (Mar 4, 2010)

When business is tight, it's only common sense to survey assets and look for latent opportunities to turn things around.

Those seeing Japanese ball for the first time are immediately struck by the passion and energy of the players and fans and the place the sport has in the culture. Yet, given its dominant position in one of the world's great economies, one has to wonder why the pro game has not developed more.

Although it is America's national pastime, baseball there has to compete with other pro sports for talent, fan interest and revenue. The real competition in Japan is just from pro soccer.

Yet, Nippon Professional Baseball exists in a state of resignation, that its competitive potential is limited by the physical size of its players, that it will always be second best to Major League Baseball in terms of quality.

On the field, the principle difference in quality is depth. Less quality is needed to earn the last spot on an NPB roster. This means Japanese clubs have some easier outs in the lineup and easier pitchers to hit off.

Yet, that is something that could be changed over time. Things that seem a permanent part of the landscape can disappear in a matter of a year or two. Nightly telecasts of Yomiuri Giants games on terrestrial TV were a given for more than two decades; now they're gone.

Japan's quality of play would dramatically improve with a massive increase in the number of minor league teams and games. The raw talent exists in the amateurs, and the potential fan interest exists in the nation's love of the game.

What it takes is the imagination needed to see a different path, the courage to break with the traditions laid down by those who came before and the will power and creativity needed to see it through.

This is a tall order for anyone. One cannot simply follow the major league model in Japan because of differences in laws, customs and infrastructure.

However, for the pro game's current stewards, who still haven't figured out how to get the schedule completed on time, it may be asking too much. Perhaps they should start with something simple.

Instead of a grand scheme to renew its product, NPB could start small by selling the whole game, not just the batting.

Go to a game and you'll see how the stadium's rhythm is dictated by the team at bat. Fans chant when their guys bat, and are expected to mind their manners when the other club's fans chant and shout.

As would be expected, the Hanshin Tigers fans don't always conform to that etiquette. If a Tigers fielder makes a great stop or a big throw, their fans roar.

When a Hanshin pitcher is one out away from closing out the game, Tigers fans are on their feet roaring for a strikeout.

That's the way it should be everywhere all the time.

In almost every game, you'll see a show-stopping play that brings the crowd to its feet. Yet NPB clubs, who are so obsessed with selling "full swings," do little to exploit the athleticism of their defenders.

When a member of the home team raises the roof with his fielding, you'd expect to see it replayed on the stadium's big screen. It should be a no-brainer.

It happens now and again, but the most frequent acknowledgement of a great play by the home team is a live shot of the fielder in question standing around after the play. Fans are more likely to see the gentleman picking his nose than picking the ball.

From time to time, Tokyo Dome will put "Giants highlights" on the big screen. And at those times, you'll see Giants swinging bats, running the bases, scoring and pumping their fists in celebration. But even if the game's biggest highlight is in the field, you'll never see any defense. It's like they're only trying to sell half their product.

Before every game, teams show PR videos, one showing fans having a great time at the different ballparks and another showing greats of the game over the years.

NPB ought to produce a weekly defensive highlight video showing one electric play after another with lively commentary and uptempo music. In between innings teams could flash 30 seconds of fielding gems on the big screen.

There's nothing wrong with showing big swings, but the game has so much more. It's time the teams started selling it.


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