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Rob Smaal

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NPB needs a leader, not Kato the cipher

by Rob Smaal (Mar 27, 2011)

Nippon Professional Baseball Commissioner Ryozo Kato is one of the least influential administrators in sports. And, it would seem, that's just the way his bosses, the 12 NPB clubs, like it.

Every now and then, situations will arise that cry out for an effective, respected, knowledgeable leader, and the aftermath of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami was certainly one of those.

While it was plain to plenty of people throughout this battered nation that professional baseball should be put on hold until folks had a chance to start recovering from the emotional and physical pain wrought by the disaster, this sentiment was not shared by a few NPB clubs, most notably the Yomiuri Giants and their blustery ownership group.

Many felt it was simply too early to "Play Ball!" just two weeks after an event that saw thousands of people killed and displaced. The players' association, led by Hanshin Tigers infielder Takahiro Arai, could see it; government ministers who were trying to conserve precious energy realized this; it was pretty obvious to the Pacific League, whose Sendai-based Rakuten Eagles were hit hardest by the quake.

While the PL reacted swiftly in pushing back its Opening Day until April 12, the Central League initially opposed any postponement and announced that they would go ahead with their scheduled March 25 openers. But with pressure from the public, government officials and their own players mounting, the CL owners "caved" and said they would bump their regular season back four days, to March 29.

This move, however, was deemed disappointing and inadequate by the players' association, which was pushing for an April 12 start date to coincide with the PL's rescheduled Opening Day. So, after more bad press and pleas from government ministers, at a meeting on Thursday the Central League finally fell in line and pushed back its Opening Day to April 12.

Thankfully, for NPB schedule-makers, team traveling secretaries, players and fans, the revolving-date issue appears to finally be over. But what a mess.

And throughout this chaos, where was commissioner Kato? When the situation called for a decision-maker to step up to the plate and make a tough call--or at least offer some informed opinions--Kato-san was, for the most part, notably silent. As teams, players, and fans were left twisting in the wind, the lame-duck commish was not out front on this issue. In fact, he didn't even seem to be in the building.

When Kato was appointed NPB commissioner in 2008, after a four-year stint by Yasuchika Negoro, it was hoped that he might bring a fresh, progressive approach to the job. NPB certainly needed that, as interest in the sport was waning while soccer became increasingly popular.

Kato, a former Japanese ambassador to the United States, brought international credentials and was said to be big a fan of both Major League Baseball and NPB. He might be just the man for the job, or so we thought.

But it soon became evident that he was simply the latest in a long line of figureheads chosen by team owners to do their bidding, a man with a nice job title but little--if any--real power. NPB is broke financially, bleeding money, and the marketing of the product is still pretty much non-existent.

With the country struggling to pull itself out of the devastation caused by the events of March 11, Kato had a real opportunity to step up to the plate and assert himself, take a leadership role. Instead, he simply dropped the ball. The sound of silence coming from his office said it all.


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