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THE HOT CORNER: Finding a silver lining

by Jim Allen (Mar 31, 2011)

Nippon Professional Baseball's painful preseason progress guarantees this will be a season like no other. When things suddenly change, players and teams are forced to innovate. Considering the magnitude of the challenges facing NPB, this season could spark innovation on a massive scale.

Unable to play night games in the Kanto and Tohoku regions until the current power shortage eases, the Yomiuri Giants have opted not to use Tokyo Dome until at least May. Because of earthquake damage to their park, the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles are not scheduled to open in Sendai until the afternoon of Friday, April 29.

Because of these difficulties, teams throughout Japan are now scrambling for options, for the best way to carry on in the face of enormous handicaps.

The closest parallel may be 1950, when quality stadiums were at a premium.

When the inaugural Central League season opened that year on March 10, it was nothing like Opening Day as we know it now. Instead of home openers around the country being followed by series between two teams at one venue for a few days, games were played in every conceivable fashion.

To benefit from the warmer spring weather, the league started play in Kyushu--although only one CL club, the Nishinihon Pirates, was based there.

The 1950 season saw these unusual, six-game series. Three teams would play two games a day, with each club playing one doubleheader over a three-day span. It was wild and would be impossible to imagine these days.

Teams were organized differently, too.

For example, the 1950 Giants had just 24 players on their roster. In contrast, 54 players played in the Giants' first-team games last year. This year, the club has 90 men under contract, 23 on developmental deals.

To start the 1950 Japan Series on time, seven postponed CL games were not made up. Five of the eight CL teams played fewer than 140 games.

It's no surprise things were different back then. Rules, playing conditions and tactics are never exactly the same from one year to the next. No matter what, the game is going to change. We need not fear it.

It is human nature to cling to the familiar. However, committing to the tried and true when the world is rapidly changing is not always the best course of action.

By sticking to the principle of completing its planned 144-game schedule this season, the 12 teams have set an ambitious goal and will have to learn new tricks to get it done.

At some point, those in power may find that some elements of its current business are not contributing to the product.

Take the idea of playing every scheduled game. Under current rules, teams often travel to make up games at the end of the season that have no affect on the final standings.

If the Hiroshima Carp have to send 40 people to Yokohama for a single game, it's going to cost them around 3 million yen for train tickets, food, lodging and transporting equipment. The BayStars wouldn't have to travel, but they would have to pay for stadium staff, security, catering and electricity. And for what? For an idea.

This could be the year NPB learns it can easily do without that waste.

Because of the electricity shortage, the leagues have already acted to avoid overly long extra-inning games. This season, when a game goes past the 3-1/3-hour mark, no extra inning will be started.

But what about energy wasted before the first pitch?

Why do teams start practicing four hours before game time? Why not two hours before, or 90 minutes?

Because that's what Japanese teams do. Japanese practice has as much to do with culture as it does with the preparation. It's important for the game but not critical. But because it's culturally embedded, it has been a sacred cow.

Yet, when games pile up and there's no break in sight, some managers might wonder if streamlining practice might be the answer. Could this be the year in which a team's success is attributed to more efficient practice?

Probably not.

Yet, because difficult situations require innovation, this uncertain season could provide the spark for a remarkable number of new ideas and possibilities.


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