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THE HOT CORNER: Tazawa hurls NPB bakufu into crisis

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THE HOT CORNER: Tazawa hurls NPB bakufu into crisis

by Jim Allen (Sep 18, 2008)

For the past few years, Nippon Professional Baseball took some comfort in its monopoly of Japanese amateur talent. Despite the steady drain of players at the top end, the amateurs remained a Japanese preserve.

Until last week.

Corporate league pitcher Junichi Tazawa's decision to skip Japan and begin his pro career in the States shouldn't have come as a shock. After all, it was bound to happen. With more and more veterans clamoring to be posted to the majors with each passing season, it was fairly obvious that blue-chip amateurs would sooner or later decide that nine years of indentured servitude here was too much.

"It's very sad," players' union chief Shinya Miyamoto told the Hot Corner on Friday. "We all seek to better the game here, and we need these young players to work for our game.

"On the other hand, it's his free choice and we have to respect that."

In the weeks since Tazawa's intention slowly leaked out, the 12 pro teams have talked about rules to prevent a further recurrence. The problem, however, is not a lack of rules, but a lack of flexibility on the part of NPB.

All players want to play at the highest level possible--and until the competition in Japan is on par with the majors, players will continue to leave. The only way to counter the movement is to raise the level of the game here so that players can compete at the highest level here in Japan.

In some ways, NPB's problem is analogous to the one Japan's last shoganate faced 155 years ago, when U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry's squadron appeared in Tokyo Bay. Struggle as it might, the Tokugawa bakufu could no longer prevent technologically superior foreign powers from encroaching on Japan's interests.

Tokugawa rule was dedicated to maintaining power by preserving the status quo. This meant isolating and oppressing subordinate clans to prevent them from uniting against the Tokugawa. Although a system that preserved the old ways maintained order for 260 years, it finally became obsolete and too weak to cope with internal and external threats.

Although NPB does not oppress its clubs, it is a feudal structure based on a 59-year-old business model in which the rights of individual clubs are maintained regardless of the cost to the whole.

While each organization boasts ambitious people who dream of a better game, NPB's intrinsic lack of unity makes cooperation difficult and change arduously slow.

Like the Tokugawa, the teams used to be confident Japan's world would never grow beyond their ability to command it. It didn't matter that the system was inefficient, that too much amateur talent was ignored, that pitchers were allowed to burn out their arms before they turned 27. It didn't matter because Japanese ball was, like Tokugawa Japan, sealed off from the rest of the world.

The possibility of a talent drain was inconceivable; Japanese players would remain tied to their teams. The introduction of free agency changed that. After 1993, bigger clubs were able to strip the smaller clubs of veteran stars. Yet, free agency was predicated on the mistaken belief that Japanese players were not good enough for the majors. In 1995, Hideo Nomo shattered that misconception forever.

Once the old barriers were removed, the writing was on the wall. Unfortunately, the teams failed to read it.

The posting system was inevitable once teams realized free agency would allow major league clubs to take top stars and give nothing back. The movement of amateur players, unwilling to endure eight or nine years of serfdom in Japan, was also inevitable--but the diamond daimyo do not appear to have seen that coming, either.

There is little NPB can do about an amateur who wants no part of its obsolete system.

Historian E.H. Norman wrote that the Tokugawa clan fell because of its inability to cope with economic and social change within Japan--that the external threat posed by the west was only a catalyst.

The only way the yakyu bakufu can prevent a similar end is to take care of business at home, get its game in order and deal from strength.

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