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Yomiuri vs. Asahi in war over Giants’ broken paycap agreement ‘scoop’

by Philip Brasor

On March 15, the Asahi Shimbun reported that the Yomiuri Giants baseball team paid huge amounts of money in contract-signing bonuses to several rookies, in violation of an agreement signed by all 12 Japan Professional Baseball teams. The payouts took place from 1997 to 2004, and involved six players who were given between ¥250 million and ¥1 billion. The agreement, which accompanied a new baseball draft system initiated in 1993, limited such bonuses to ¥100 million — ¥150 million each. In principle, baseball teams select new players who have just graduated from high school or university by lot, but each year they can also acquire up to two new players by what is referred to as a “reverse indication” (gyaku-shimei) system, which says the players can preselect which team they want to play for.

Yomiuri responded immediately, complaining that the Asahi story was old news and the Giants organization had done nothing wrong. Tsuneo Watanabe, Yomiuri Shimbun Holdings’ chairman and editor in chief of the Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s biggest newspaper in terms of circulation, said that the Asahi obviously got this information from Hidetoshi Kiyotake, the former general manager of the Giants who once referred to Watanabe as a dictator and is suing his old employer, but not before his old employer sued him. Hardly coincidentally, Kiyotake’s new tell-all book was published March 16, the day after the Asahi report appeared.

Though the tabloids and weeklies have been covering this dustup, major media have mostly avoided it, in particular television news shows and wide shows, which usually take to sports-related scandals like ants to sugar. Consequently, the average person may have no idea what all the excitement is about, or whether the situation even warrants excitement.

Yomiuri points out that the agreement isn’t legally binding and the tax office is, despite Asahi’s claim to the contrary, satisfied with its handling of the payouts. In addition, the so-called bonus cap is nothing more than a “target,” and in any case an agreement to a cap amounts to a violation of the spirit, if not the letter, of the Antimonopoly Law.

It’s a bizarre statement. First of all, Watanabe has practically run Japanese professional baseball for the last three or four decades, so the agreement wouldn’t have been approved in the first place without his consent. Second, there is no more monopolistic industry in Japan than the media, which is protected by laws that guarantee retail prices for books and periodicals as well as keeping outsiders from acquiring broadcast rights.

But if the mainstream media seems reluctant to get involved in this battle of the heavyweights, blogs aren’t, and one of the most interesting is titled Hoshuha Kara Mita Mediariterashi (Media Literacy From the Viewpoint of Conservatives), whose anonymous author says that the “reality in Japan is that only a major media company can address the arrogance of another major media company.” Watanabe, who was the president of the Giants until a similar money scandal forced him to step down in 2004, said he was thinking of suing Asahi to force it to reveal its source since the information is “confidential,” meaning it must have been stolen. It hardly matters that, despite his denials, everyone believes Kiyotake was the source.

Watanabe started out as a newspaperman himself and so presumably understands journalistic ethics. He just wants Asahi to pay for its impertinence. But as Tokyo Shimbun commented, Watanabe’s imperious behavior is backfiring this time, since it’s boosting sales of Kiyotake’s book.

Otherwise, the only significant aspect of Asahi’s reporting is the amount of money involved, which in each case is so far above the “target” limit that the deals can’t help but attract scrutiny. As the weekly Aera (which is affiliated with the Asahi) pointed out, even people with close ties to professional baseball were shocked when they read that Shinnosuke Abe, a catcher who joined the Giants in 2001, received ¥1 billion as a bonus, likely paid in installments. Abe turned out to be a valuable addition, but did Yomiuri really need to pay that much? It also seems unlikely that other teams didn’t know about these payments, so if they didn’t raise a stink it only proves that the 1993 agreement was little more than a smokescreen to hide the fact that professional baseball was going to be much more about money in the future. Most people probably take that for granted, but the teams want to maintain a front of fair play. What Asahi revealed is that rather than young players “indicating” which team they want to play for, the teams target the players they want to recruit and then offer huge contract-signing bonuses to secure that indication. It’s also been said that coaches and parents receive money, as well. Weekly magazine Bunshun reported that the Giants not only gave outfielder Yoshinobu Takahashi a huge bonus to win his favor, but also paid off the debts of his father’s real-estate business.

The Media Literacy blogger sees this as unfair in a world where sumo wrestlers’ careers were ruined because of gambling. It’s not that he’s forgiving of betting among athletes: He’s just resentful of double standards. The media will pile on one sport when there’s a hint of scandal, but not another. Almost all the major media companies have some sort of stake in baseball, but not sumo.

More pragmatic minds will wonder about something else. Logic says that professional baseball can’t thrive if one team constantly dominates, but the Giants are considered to be Japan’s national team, which is the only possible explanation for why Watanabe can get away with such boorish behavior. However, between 1997 and 2004, when all this money was spent, the Giants won the Central League pennant only twice. So maybe the real reason Yomiuri is angry at Asahi is that now everybody knows how stupid the Giants are with their money.