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Batting Out of Their League

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Batting Out of Their League

by Robert Whiting (May 7, 2001)

Digitized by Jessica Suchman and Catherine Nissley

Thanks to an archaic ownership system, Japanese baseball is losing its best players, its fans and its soul.

When I first came to Japan back in the 1960s, Japanese professional baseball was in its heyday. It had produced, arguably, its best squad ever – the proud Tokyo Yomiuri Giants, who were then in the process of winning nine consecutive Japan Championships. The team was powered by Sadaharu Oh, the man who would go on to break hank Aaron's lifetime home-run record, and its charismatic, clutch-hitting third baseman Shigeo Nagashima. Los Angeles Dodger owner Walter O'Malley was so impressed with Nagashima that he tried to buy his contract, but the Giants' aging founder Matsutaro Shoriki turned the offer down flat. The quality of Japanese baseball, once considered laughably bad, had advanced so much in the postwar years – in a striking parallel to the then-booming Japanese economy – that Shoriki was talking up an eventual Real World Series with the American champions. Although Nagashima was interested in the Dodger offer, duty to team and country would have to come first.

Fast-forward to the year 2001, a decade into Japan's seemingly endless post-bubble recession, and talk of an RWS has all but disappeared. Eight of Japan's best players are now wearing U.S. major league uniforms, including new Seattle Mariners' signee Ichiro Suzuki, perhaps the greatest pure hitter the Japanese game has ever produced. And Japan's national sport seems in danger of becoming a farm system for the American majors. Until this year, only pitchers had ventured abroad, notably Hideo Nomo who took his corkscrew delivery to L.A. In 1995 and won Rookie of the Year honors. But if boyish superstar Ichiro (he goes by his given name) and fellow emigrant Tsuyoshi Shinjo, a dashing slugger joining the New York Mets, both perform as advertised, the exodus will only accelerate. (American players have been part of the Japanese baseball equation for years but only in the form of minor leaguers, benchwarmers and aging stars. Never has an American oftop status been guilty of defection – and certainly no one like Ichiro who, with an exotic foot-in-the-air stance, has won an unprecedented seven-straight batting titles.) "It's a disaster in the making," says novelist and baseball writer Masayuki Tamaki. "Japan is losing all its heroes."

Critics say Japan's hidebound feudal practices have finally caught up with it. Ever since Americans introduced the game in 1871, Japan has imbued besuboru with its own philosophy: a Zen samurai emphasis on discipline, spirit and selflessness reflected in the modern-day professional system, which began in 1935. The 12 teams of the Central and Pacific leagues draw more than 22 million fans a year. But because of a complaint union, which refuses to strike (that would disrupt social harmony, or wa), and restrictions that keep neutral salary arbiters and sports agents at arm's length, players are underpaid and underrepresented. They are expected to endure brutal workouts, which include dawn-to-dusk training camps held in the freezing cold, and to obey petty rules that are more befitting a military academy. During this off-season, after several traffic violations, 20-year-old pitching standout Daisuke Matsuzaka of the Seibu Lions was punished by being confined to his home and forbidden to do any endorsements.

It's no wonder some players want to leave. "I don't think the commissioner or management side are aware of it," says noted playwright Tetsu Yamazaki, a longtime fan. "But it's the freedom of the major leagues that is the most attractive thing for Japanese players."

The first cracks in the system appeared in 1995, when Nomo, then 26 and one of Japan's very best pitchers, used a loophole in the archaic Japanese baseball-convention rules that enabled him to circumvent free-agent regulations. A poster boy for a new generation of restless youth fed up with the traditional constraints of group loyalty, Nomo was at first heavily criticized by older fans. Japan's hyperactive media labeled him a "troublemaker" and even a "traitor." But when he started humbling Americans with his wicked forkball, suddenly the country that had spent half a century trying to catch up with the West saw fit to turn him into a national hero.

Nomo's success inspired so many players to follow in his footsteps that Japan's baseball executives were moved to action. Led by Shigeyoshi Ino, general manager of the Pacific League Kobe-based Orix Blue Wave (owned by Orix Corp., a major leasing company), they came up with a plan designed to close the Nomo loophole and enable management to profit from the growing rash of defections. The so-called posting system gives a player still a year or two shy of free-agent eligibility to opportunity to sign up with a major league team – if that team agrees to pay his Japanese club a negotiating fee. Last year the 27-year-old Ichiro became the first Japanese star to use posting. From the deal, his team, the Blue Wave, earned a crisp $13 million. To some observers such tactics smack of price-fixing, market discrimination and possible violation of antitrust law: if the player does not like the U.S. team negotiating the deal, his only recourse is to stay in Japan for another year. Nomo's American-based agent Don Nomura called it a "slave auction." The union, true to form, failed to file suit. Explained Toru Matsubara, secretary-general of the Japanese Baseball Player's Association: "Trials last forever here." Japan was free to sell off its best talent. And there was little the fan could do. As a disgusted Tamaki creatively put it, "It makes me want to become a sports terrorist."

Japan's game is structured differently from its American cousin. In the U.S., the 30 major league teams, which draw more than 72 million fans annually, exist purely for profit. They maintain extensive farm and scouting systems and are run by people with years of experience in the pro game. Japan's teams, concentrated mainly in the Tokyo and Osaka areas, exist primarily to advertise the products of their corporate owners – like the pork sold by the sponsors of the Nippon Ham Fighters. They invest sparingly in player development: only one farm team per franchise is the norm, and teams are often operated by officials from the parent company who know little about the game.

The defending Japan champion Tokyo Giants of the Central League, Japan's oldest and winningest team, are owned by the nation's leading daily newspaper, the Yomiuri Shimbun. They draw capacity crowds wherever they play, including 3 million fans a year at home. That's comfortably ahead of their nearest competitor, the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks, owned by a supermarket chain. But many of the other teams, particularly in the Pacific League, play to sparse crowds and operate at an annual loss, using the red ink as an advertising tax write-off.

To Tsueno Watanabe, the gruff president of Yomiuri, that's business as usual. He insists that any talk of a baseball crisis is an invention of the "anti-Giants media." He points to a March survey that shows Japanese pro baseball is still the favorite sport of 55% of the people and the Giants the favorite team of half of them. He dismisses any worry over the hemorrhaging of players to the U.S. "It's a globalized world and there's nothing unusual about players crossing borders," he says. It's worth noting that the Giants have their own TV network, and the team's games are telecast nightly nationwide to loyal fans. The Giants have such a mystique that a valued player is yet to defect and the team has even gone on a buying spree in recent years, picking up top players from other squads via free agency. But Watanabe's words are scant consolation to fans of Orix or of Shinjo's team, the Hanshin Tigers of Osaka, where good replacements are not readily available. The fact is, overall attendance has been slipping. TV ratings have fallen. And some baseball officials have expressed concern about the deteriorating quality of play.

This year may be critical. With two Japanese playing for the Seattle Mariners – Ichiro and veteran star reliever Kazuhiro Sasaki – Japan's public broadcasting company, NHK, may set a record for the most televised U.S. major league games in a single year. Says veteran sports-writer Kozo Abe, who has covered baseball on both sides of the Pacific: "The Japanese are finally beginning to realize how much better American big league baseball is – in real competition, that is, not goodwill games – in terms of power, speed, technique and depth. That could spell doom for Japan's game."

Those who fear indentured servitude to their American cousins are searching for solutions. One frequently discussed option is contraction: a scenario in which Japan's 12 teams are reduced in number to tighten up competition and increase overall per-game attendance. Another idea is expansion, as in a plan proposed by baseball columnist Jim Allen, which would take advantage of a number of new ballparks built around the country, courtesy of Liberal Democratic Party pork, to set up a broad system of professional minor league teams in small markets. Still another plan is a World Baseball Cup, like that of soccer, held once every four years. But all require conviction and/ or money, commodities in short supply in recession-ridden Japan. Hiroshi Gondo, ex-manager of the Yokohama Bay Stars, is especially skeptical: "I've been involved in Japanese pro ball for 40 years, and the one thing that I can say is that nothing ever changes."

One idea definitely not being entertained (though favored by this writer) is a merger with the U.S. major leagues, creating, say, a six-team Japan Division. Thus those stars who wanted to test themselves against big-league competition would not have to move all the way to North America to do so, and fans would be able to see all the great players in the world up close and live. "It's totally impossible," says Yomiuri's Watanabe, citing a list of reasons: higher travel costs, the shift that would be required from a system of corporate sponsorship to one of business orientation, the opposition of other clubs to the American invasion of their markets and the restrictive rules of the Japanese professional baseball convention. "The idea is nonsense and has no merit."

By contrast, Gene Orza, attorney for the Major League Baseball Association, says, "It's something that we expect to look at seriously someday if we can solve travel problems." The Chicago Cubs played their first two official games of the 2000 season in Tokyo, then returned home and, jet-lagged, lost their next 10 games. No one on the team is eager to repeat the experience.

There may also be a slight tinge of ethnocentricity clouding the issue: Shigeo Nagashima, now the Giants manager, told a meeting of supporters in 1999 that he wanted to make an all-kokusan (made-in-Japan) Giants team. There is currently a limit of three foreign players per team. Longtime Tokyo-based sports journalist Marty Kuehnert wrote a critical piece about Nagashima's remarks, in which he despaired at the cultural differences still separating the two countries. "Any manager back in the big leagues who said he wanted a pure all-made-in-America team wouldn't last very long," he said. "But here, nobody uttered a peep." It might be noted that most North Americans, for their part, still tend to view Japan as a little more than a glorified minor league.

In the end, the likelihood is that Japan will just muddle through, much in the same way the Japanese government has muddled through the past 10 recession-filled, confidence-depleting years. Says playwright Yamazaki, whose devotion to the Giants began to wane after Watanabe forced the free-agent system on the other owners in 1993: "Let Japanese players go to the States. That is good for Japanese baseball because someday they will come back and raise the level of the sport. Japanese baseball is like Japanese politics. One is dominated by the Giants, the other by the LDP. It will take time to liberate them."

In the meantime, the hemorrhaging will continue. Last month, Yakult Swallows' 27-year-old ace pitcher Kazuhisa Ishii became the latest star to declare his intention to go to the U.S. Even more startling was the recent decision by Giants slugger (and the Central League's most valuable player in 2000) Hideki Matsui to turn down an eight-year offer reportedly worth $50 million. Had Matsui signed, it would have been the most lucrative deal in the history of Japanese baseball. His refusal shocked team officials and fueled speculation that the superstar outfielder, who becomes eligible for free agency at the end of the next season, might be contemplating his own move abroad. If the leading member of Japan's royal house of baseball deserts, the last taboo will been broken. And when that happens, either meaningful change will have to be made or there may not be much of the Japanese game left to save.

With reporting by Hiroko Tashiro/Tokyo

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