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MLB should think big after success of Japan games

by Jack Gallagher

Congratulations to Major League Baseball on the successful 2000 season-opening games between the Chicago Cubs and New York Mets at the Tokyo Dome last week. It was great to see the big boys finally playing regular-season games here in Japan.

The clubs put on a good show for the sellout crowd two nights in a row with the big guns like Mark Grace and Mike Piazza hitting the longball, ageless wonder Rickey Henderson stealing a base with a headfirst slide at 41, and the unlikeliest of heroes, Benny Agbayani, blasting a dramatic grand slam in the 11th inning of the second game to give the Mets a split in the short series.

I was also pleased to see MLB commissioner Bud Selig and Hall of Famers Hank Aaron and Ernie Banks make the trip across the Pacific for the historic event. Now that the first games have been played, it’s time for MLB officials to build on their success in Japan with some firm plans and goals for the future.

This is not the time for the executives on Park Avenue to rest on their laurels, but rather for them to aggressively and proactively map out a strategy to make the MLB season-opening games in Japan an annual event.

The fans in Japan don’t want to hear about why the games can’t be held here every year — like there’s not enough time for planning or some other lame excuse — they just want to see it done. It reminds me of the old saying: “The world doesn’t want to hear about the birth pains, they want to see the baby.”

MLB officials have to keep in mind that, unlike the other major North American professional sports, baseball is the national game of Japan. It is that simple. Whenever people from outside Japan ask me about the popularity of baseball here, I recount for them how several years ago at the Tokyo Dome, a team of former players sponsored by a beer company took on the Kobe Fire Dept. in a game that drew more than 30,000 fans.

There are several major league teams that don’t draw that many spectators for regular-season games.

One high-ranking MLB official told me last week, on the condition on anonymity, “These games aren’t a one-shot deal. You will see major league games again in Japan for sure.”

With that statement in mind, I would like to offer my advice to the MLB officials on how best to make the season-opening games in Japan an ongoing success:

* Play the games every year.

* Rotate the series between Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya and Fukuoka. Each of these cities has a domed stadium that could play host to the games. The rotation will give fans throughout the country a better chance to see the major leaguers play in person and will also serve to keep the event fresh.

* Make the series three games instead of two. It’s a long way for the clubs to travel here, and the players complain about two-game series in North America, so give the fans an extra game to see and the players another chance to prove they are over jet lag. No need to worry about attendance, the extra game will sell out as well.

* Try to bring at least one marquee team each year. It would be nice to see the New York Yankees make the trip over the next time. They have a long association with Japanese baseball and, with so many superstar players, would be a logical choice to really keep interest at a fever pitch.

* Try to bring at least one team that has a Japanese player on it. This is not as easy as it sounds in this day of free agency, but as time goes on we will see more Japanese players trying their skills in the majors, increasing the chance of a Japanese major leaguer playing before the home fans.

* Bring the teams in one day earlier. This time the clubs arrived on Saturday and began playing exhibition games on Monday. I say give them one more day to get their body clocks adjusted. It will give the fans a better chance to see the players at their best.

* Open an office in Tokyo to keep the MLB presence up here year-round. The NFL and NBA both have their own offices in Japan, it’s high time the MLB did too.

* Don’t worry about what the Japanese baseball officials think about the games being held on an annual basis. If you listened to what these guys had to say, you would probably have never come in the first place. If they don’t like the games being held here every year, that’s too bad. These guys have made a mockery of the sport in this country already.

* Make a sincere effort to develop an MLB-Japan post-season series between the champions of the respective leagues. Yes, there are many obstacles, but imagine what it would do for the game. The Yomiuri Giants soundly beat the Cubs and Mets on successive nights without their best pitchers on the mound. This should be sufficient proof that the Japanese clubs could make such a series competitive.

* Quickly announce plans for the next series of games. With the success of and interest in the inaugural season-opening series, we are at the point of critical mass and the possibilities are limitless. Capitalize on this chance, don’t vacillate.