Baseball executive goes to the plate in Asia

by Angela Jeffs

Jim Small is very big — meaning tall, 193 cm to be exact. He is also in good shape, warm and friendly, and moving. Moving as in moving offices, that is.

Stacked with cardboard boxes, there’s an aura of excitement and urgency in the room. Luckily, he only has to fill one box himself, with personal belongings. The rest will be done by professionals, and he can hardly wait for yet another fast on-the-ball Japan experience.

Small, who is managing director of MLB Ltd. (Major League Baseball Japan) and also vice president of MLB Asia, came with the job. “Opening an office here in 2003, the organization became a physical presence four years ago. That was when I told my wife, ‘OK, the good news is that I’ll not be making long trips to Tokyo any longer. The best news is we’re moving there.’ “

Based in the U.S. and Canada, MLB regards itself as the pre-eminent sports league in the world. Small’s job here is to develop the business of baseball in Asia, with four main areas of potential revenue: branding, TV, sponsorship, and licensing (caps, T-shirts, logos).

Small believes Japan is the perfect place to start because it’s already a baseball country, with a century-old history. Why did it take off in Japan? Because it proved so perfectly adaptable to the traditional Japanese mind set.

“Think rhythm, harmony, the element of sacrifice — the greater good of the team always uppermost in the mind of each and every individual. From the Western perspective, Japanese baseball has taken certain aspects too far — the demands of its military-like regime can be very hard. But they have most certainly got some things right. Baseball is regarded as near sacred here.”

The game is now played in 110 countries around the world. Nearer to home, these include the Caribbean, Puerto Rica, Venezuela and Mexico. In Oceania, Australia has 50 players in pro-leagues. In Asia, it’s already popular in Korea and Taiwan as well as Japan. As for China, Small sees this vast country hungry for change as “wide open for a major initiation.”

He’s even seeing results in traditionally football-crazy Europe. In Germany, baseball is a well-established part of the physical education programs, with 18- and 19-year-olds just coming into their own. The first French kid just signed with the L.A. Dodgers.

“In China, we want to take what we learned in Australia and then help the Chinese go fast. They are poised for acceleration, and we’re here to help. God has touched some Chinese kid’s arm to hurl a ball at 125 kph. We want to find him, and train him. We want to make China a baseball-playing country.”

Small believes he was chosen. But to promote baseball rather than play it. Born in Boston, and playing for the Kansas City Rollers while at college, he watched with admiration as two young reporters, Woodward and Bernstein, opened up the political box of worms called Watergate.

“I’d been thinking I might become a journalist, but two things happened to change my mind. A woman I knew lost her daughter in a train wreck and my immediate reaction was that her pain was none of my business. Not a good reaction for a reporter, right?”

He was also introduced quite coincidentally to the heady world of statistics, which led him into a career. He began with a full-time job with the Chicago Cubs — that was in 1982 — and then moved to the commissioner’s office in New York.

“I left to go to Nike, then came back into the position I hold now. For me this is the perfect job, combining sport and business. I came to terms with my limitations as a player long ago, and that’s just fine. Here, I have a unique position.” The main difficulty of the job is dealing with time differences between one country and another. “Basically, I’m on call 24 hours a day.”

Also, he says, conference calls are hell.

“Trying to explain cultural differences is just so hard — trying to explain that the Japanese “hai” does not always mean yes. I find I need so much patience. But I’m getting there. I’m realizing that things that bothered me two years ago just don’t seem that important anymore. Japan is such a wonderful place. I have kids of 11, 9 and 6, and they just love it here.”

His wife is also making the best of the experience. She spends a lot of time learning Japanese, works as a volunteer at her children’s school, and helps organize the Tokyo chapter of the NPO, Room to Read.

“She has to be self-reliant because I spend 90 percent of my time traveling. But still, I try to support my two older kids when they have sports practice at weekends. My boy plays baseball, my daughter, football.”

In April, under the headline “Land of Rising Sun sees interest falling as Japanese stars depart,” Dan Connolly wrote in the Baltimore Sun: “This year, Major League Baseball has been smacked on the noggin by Boston Red Sox pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka with his multitude of pitches and arm angles.”

Asked whether it looks as if Japanese baseball is doomed, as the best players head for the States, Small begs to disagree. “I hear this all the time, that Japanese baseball has had it. But when you look closely, it’s just not true. Sure it needs a drastic overhaul, but finished? No way. It’s still (rating sumo as No. 1) the No. 2 sport in the No. 2 country in the world.

“Why is it losing money? Because the game here lacks entertainment value. It’s too tradition bound, it’s not packaged correctly for TV, there’s no minor league system. The game needs to make itself relevant to the average family.

“Softbank and Chiba Mariners are already doing very innovative things, but many of the established teams remain stuck in mud.”

Nor does Small agree that all the best players are choosing to go abroad. Many fine Japanese players choose to stay here because it suits them. It is those personalities who think the Japanese system too strict and confining that seek to spread their wings.

“And of course, some find that foreign baseball or American culture is not what they imagined, and come back. Shingo Takatsu, for example.

“Others, like Hideo Nomo — who set the trend in 1995 — Ichiro Suzuki (who followed soon after) and Hideki Matsui have all proved their mettle in MLB teams, and good luck to them.”

Small admits he has a soft spot for Ichiro, “arguably the greatest hitter on earth! He’s such a cool personality. When he walks into a room, the atmosphere changes — it’s as if a spotlight has come on. He’s different. All the other players notice it too.”

In 2004, the Open Series was held in Japan for the first time. Again next year, two major U.S. teams will open the season here rather than on their home turf.

“With 2008 the year of the Summer Olympics in Beijing, we see this event as a major launching pad into China. It’s going to be a very exciting time.”

Which is why MLBJ is moving into larger premises — what Small jokingly calls “big boy offices.”