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Rob Smaal

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For many, CL flag eclipses Japan Series

by Rob Smaal (Oct 4, 2010)

In professional sports, winning it all is what it's all about, in most cases, at least.

Be it the World Series, Super Bowl or Stanley Cup, athletes will battle hard and long to get their name on the trophy or to pick up that championship ring.

To some teams and players in Japanese baseball, however, winning a Japan Series title plays a distant second fiddle to capturing the Central League pennant.

Last year, the Yakult Swallows snuck into the CL playoffs by finishing third in the league. They headed down to Nagoya to face the Chunichi Dragons in a best-of-three series, with the winner going on to meet the league champion Yomiuri Giants for the right to represent the Central League in the Japan Series.

"It was a little strange, no playoff buzz or excitement," recalled Swallows outfielder Aaron Guiel, a former major leaguer. "There were empty seats and it seemed like the Dragons lacked motivation."

The playoffs in Japanese baseball have been around only a short time--since 2004 in the Pacific League and 2007 in the CL. The Central and Pacific Leagues, meanwhile, have been declaring pennant winners since 1950, the first year the league winners contested the Japan Series. This has given rise to the storied Hanshin Tigers-Yomiuri Giants rivalry.

In 2007, the Dragons finished second in the CL regular season behind the Giants. But they disposed of the Tigers and then the Giants in the Central League Climax Series, before going on beat the Nippon-Ham Fighters in the Japan Series that year.

When the Dragons booked their spot in the Japan Series with their playoff win over Yomiuri, the players elected not to toss manager Hiromitsu Ochiai in the air in the traditional "doage." It was the Giants, after all, who were the true league champions.

"We are No. 1 in Japan because we won the Climax Series and the Japan Series," a subdued Ochiai would later say after his club beat the Fighters in five games. "I only wish we could have won the league as well."

Alex Ramirez and Marc Kroon have both been with the Giants since the 2008 season, during which they have won two CL pennants as well as the 2009 Japan Series crown.

"I think winning the Central League is more important than anything for any team here," said Ramirez, a two-time CL MVP who is having another banner year. "When they talk about who won in Japan, they always talk about winning the Central League.

"That's the way people see it out here. Of course, you want to be 'Nippon Ichi' (Japan Series champion), but here I think winning the Central League is more important. It's all about history and tradition."

Record-setting closer Kroon has noticed the same thing.

"Definitely, the celebration, the beer fights and all that, it almost seems like the Central League champion is the Japan champion," noted Kroon. "It does seem that way (the CL championship being more important than the Japan Series) sometimes. It's a little weird but (the CL pennant) is real important to them here, I guess."

If the league wanted to spark more interest in the playoffs and Japan Series, among the players at least, they could consider bumping up the winner's shares that get paid out. When the New York Yankees won the World Series last year, a full share that went to most of the players was over $350,000 (29.1 million yen) per man. The Phillies, who lost that series, got $265,357 each. One player on a recent Japan Series champion team said he recalled getting less than one-tenth of the cash doled out to those victorious Yankees.

A few years ago, when Dragons slugger Tyrone Woods told his dad back home in Florida that he might miss a car show they had planned to attend in November, his father asked him why. When Woods explained that he would be playing in the Japan Series that month, his dad asked him, "The Japan what?"

Seems as if even back in the United States, the Japan Series isn't getting the respect it deserves.


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