With this summer's two-game All-Star series beginning tomorrow night in Fukuoka, it's worth a moment to reflect on these exhibitions. Although the results don't count in the final standings, the games can leave a lasting impression.
The games are a record of their time and place. The only thing out of context about Japan's summer specials is how quickly they are played. They are your best bet to see a game played in under three hours: Of the past 27 games, only two have lasted as long as three hours.
The games are without the trappings of regular-season "winning baseball": the countless pickoff throws and pitching changes made so mediocre left-handers can face one left-handed batter and leave.
All-Star results are also worth a mention. As individual games, they are anecdotes, but collectively, they tell a story.
There used to be a saying in Japan, "Popular Central, strong Pacific." This harks back to the days when Central League fans would vote most of the Yomiuri Giants regulars onto the CL roster, which would then run into the buzz saw of the PL's best talent.
The PL holds a 75-69-8 All-Star edge, although one wouldn't know it to look at recent years' competition. The CL went 8-0-1 from 1997 to 2000 and was 6-0 from 2005 to 2007.
Since 1994, the CL leads the summer series 22-11. This trend is similar to one that has been going on in the majors.
On the other side of the Pacific, the National League ruled All-Star play from 1950 to 1985. Since then, the American League has been dominant.
In both cases, the answer is the same: free agency.
Since 1994, when NPB owners gave veteran players the right to sell their services on the open market, the balance of power has shifted dramatically away from the PL. Given the right to choose, a steady stream of PL stars have moved to either the Giants, Hanshin Tigers or Chunichi Dragons.
It wasn't until outfielder Atsunori Inaba signed with the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters in 2005--after failing to attract a major league contract--that a quality CL player moved the other way.
In the major leagues, the free agency shift was less pronounced, with a few teams from both leagues spending freely. However, with late Yankees owner George Steinbrenner as the poster boy for extravagant spending, the AL teams were at the forefront.
One argument for the AL's recent dominance is that the league's other clubs were forced to spend aggressively just to keep pace with the Boss. NL teams, not having to compete with mad King George, didn't need to take the risks and fell behind.
The power shift toward the AL mirrored an earlier shift that began on April 15, 1947. That was the day Jackie Robinson took the field for the NL's Brooklyn Dodgers and became the first black major leaguer in 58 years.
Although the AL's Cleveland Indians integrated quickly, the league fell behind. Former Negro League stars began to dominate the NL's MVP voting and pushed that league into All-Star dominance.
MLB's All-Star Games in that era reflected more than just the balance of power between the leagues. Like the game of that era, they were more combative. Batters weren't thrown at, but managers and players tried harder to win. In 1970, Pete Rose separated catcher Ray Fosse's shoulder when he scored the winning run in a collision at home plate--something we're unlikely to witness these days.
That's a far cry from what occurred on July 11, 2004, in Nagano in the PL's 2-1 Game 2 victory. With both the PL and the All-Star format facing possible extinction as owners fought to restructure NPB into a single league, the Pacific Leaguers were sentimental favorites that summer.
The game's MVP, the PL's Tsuyoshi Shinjo scored on a delayed steal of home after apparently being egged on from the third-base dugout by CL star and union chief Atsuya Furuta. When Shinjo beat the tag, Furuta doubled over in laughter.
It wasn't exactly hardball, but it was a lasting memory of that contentious summer--and good entertainment. In Japan, where baseball men sometimes forget that the fans pay the bills, there's room for a little more entertainment.