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Major League Baseball teams in Japan an improbable dream

by Jack Gallagher

Last week former Yokohama BayStars executive Tadahiro Ushigome spoke at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan in Tokyo on a wide range of baseball issues, including the possibility that Japan may one day be home to one or two major league teams.

Ushigome, who is highly regarded in both major league and Japanese baseball circles, cited the upcoming major league series between the Chicago Cubs and New York Mets later this month at the Tokyo Dome as evidence that Major League Baseball officials may be testing the waters for greater endeavors in the future.

As much respect as I have for Ushigome, who is an honorable and intelligent man with an outstanding eye for talent, I’m sorry to say folks, but there will never be Major League Baseball teams based in Japan.

The reasons for this are many, and it is unfortunate, because it would truly be something to see storied teams like the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers making road trips to play against major leaguers here. Basically, it boils down to two issues: power and money.

Though the concept of having an entirely Japanese team of major leaguers would probably be the most feasible, just think what would happen when MLB Team Japan wanted to sign Hideki Matsui or Yoshinobu Takahashi away from the Yomiuri Giants. I don’t think team owner Tsuneo Watanabe would stand for it.

Watanabe won’t even consider allowing interleague play between the Central and Pacific Leagues, so how could he stand by and watch an MLB team move into Japan and compete with his beloved Giants for revenue and television ratings? He and other owners wouldn’t want to lose players or revenue in any way, shape or form to Major League Baseball.

This is why there hasn’t been any expansion in Japanese pro baseball in 50 years, because the old guard rules the game with an iron fist and prefers the status quo.

The owners here don’t want any competition. They like their monopoly just the way it is. Can you imagine if there really were an MLB team in Japan and fans had to choose on a given night between going to watch the Yomiuri Giants play the Hiroshima Carp or MLB Team Japan versus the Yankees? You get my drift.

In addition to the perspective of the Japanese baseball establishment on the issue, imagine all of the problems this would pose on the major league front. Let’s just say, somehow, that Japanese officials let the concept go forward.

The power of the Major League Baseball Players Association would torpedo the whole issue faster than you can say “strike three.” There is just no way in the world it would fly with guys like Don Fehr. The stake in it for the players to agree to either be based in Japan or have to travel here would have to be so much that it wouldn’t make it feasible.

Player salaries, exchange rates, taxation, cost of living, per diem, scheduling logistics — you name it and it would all come into play and eventually sink the project one way or the other.

In November 1995, San Francisco Giants managing general partner Peter Magowan and Houston Astros owner Drayton McLane traveled to Tokyo to meet with Japanese baseball officials about several issues, including the possibility of — after many years of discussion — organizing a true “World Series” between the North American and Japan champions. Well, here we are nearly five years on and you see how much progress has been made. Absolutely none.

Even Mets manager Bobby Valentine has commented in the past about how a true “World Series” would have, “some real luster to it.” But alas, with the strength of the major league players union and the lack of vision on both sides in the baseball hierarchy, this dream too will likely never be realized.

It has always amazed me how Major League Baseball does not have an office in Japan, while their counterparts in the NFL and the NBA do. Baseball is the national sport of this country and MLB officials should have been way ahead of the game, but they are only now actually scheduling regular season games here, years after the NBA and NHL have done it.

The only model for a North American sports league setting up shop outside the continent was done in conjunction with the NFL, when the World League of American Football kicked off in March 1991 with teams in England, Germany, Spain, Canada and the U.S. After two seasons the NFL closed the league down, before bringing it back as what is now the NFL Europe in 1995.

The NFL could set up shop in Europe, because American football didn’t have the history there and strong local federations that could have thrown up roadblocks in front of the project, like Japanese officials would do here.

Interestingly, NBA commissioner David Stern has for years talked about how the league would not be making many friends if it went in and set up shop in direct competition with basketball federations outside North America. However, a funny thing happened several months back. Stern said the NBA was considering starting a minor league overseas sometime in the next couple of years.

I think Stern, with his incredible vision, sees that North America is nearly saturated with teams, and is intelligently looking for new markets for NBA basketball in one form or another. Once again, he is thinking big.

The sad fact is that for Major League Baseball to ever have teams in Japan, somebody like a David Stern is going to have to stand up to the old guard on both sides of the Pacific and lay out a plan about why such an ambitious venture would be good for baseball everywhere.

With all the power and money involved, not to mention egos, you can bet neither side will ever let it happen.