I thought there was going to be an increased interest in Japanese baseball in other countries, particularly in North America, after Hideo Nomo made it big with the Los Angeles Dodgers 12 years ago in 1995.
It didn’t really happen, though.
It also failed to materialize when Ichiro (Suzuki) had that phenomenal year with the Seattle Mariners in 2001.
But after Hideki Matsui broke in with the New York Yankees in 2003, I figured for sure the fans in the U.S. and Canada would start to get curious about where these guys were coming from, and they might want to learn more about the pro yakyu setup here.
Even after Tadahito Iguchi won a World Series ring in 2005 with the Chicago White Sox, there did not seem to be a sense of wonder about Japanese baseball among MLB fans.
However, 2006 could have been a turning point.
It may have started with the Japan National Team winning the inaugural World Baseball Classic last March.
Then Seattle’s Kenji Johjima proved a Japanese catcher can be successful in the majors, and Takashi Saito filled in brilliantly as the closer for the Dodgers.
So Taguchi got his World Series championship bonus with the St. Louis Cardinals last October, and the hot stove league bubbled over with the sizzling news about the fortune the Boston Red Sox paid for “Dice-K” or “D-Mat” Matsuzaka, and the acquisition by the Yankees via posting of lefty Kei Igawa.
Now, it seems, many in North America (and other countries) want to find out more about the game as it is played in Japan, why there is an apparent trend for Japanese teams to hire American managers and who will be the next big-name star from the Land of the Rising Sun to make a splash in the American or National League.
Gary Garland of japanbaseballdaily.com thinks it is time for Nippon Professional Baseball to take advantage of what he says is a growing number of people seeking more information about the 12 clubs that make up the system here, their players and fans.
“The curiosity about Japanese baseball continues to build,” wrote Garland in an e-mail. “My (Web) site had more than two million hits last season, and NPB is frustrating a possible fan base.
“When is NPB going to get a clue and start to do more marketing overseas?” he asked.
As an example, Garland says he is frustrated by the fact that Internet broadcasts of Japanese games require a potential fan-viewer to have reading ability in Japanese in order to go through the sign-up procedure for Webcasts.
“Anyone hear of globalization?” he laments, hinting there should be a choice of languages for a login. “This shortsightedness really makes it tough on those of us trying to promote Japanese pro baseball,” Garland complains.
Bob Bavasi of JapanBall.com says he also recognizes a surge in interest in the Japan brand of ball among fans outside Japan, as well as baseball product-related companies suddenly hit with the idea of possibly doing business with Tokyo.
More and more questions are being asked by visitors to his Web page, and he is getting an increase in phone calls from enterprises seeking to expand their activities to the Far East.
Also helping promote NPB on the other side of the Pacific is Mike Diegnan, senior multimedia producer of MLB.com, who wrote in an e-mail, “We premiered our program, ‘Yakyu: Japan’s Game’ on MLB.com this week. Due to time restraints, we weren’t able to hit each topic as we would have wanted, but it does provide a good glimpse of Japanese baseball history.”
Another film producer, Steve Holmes, was in Japan last year and is working on a piece about Japanese baseball.
Steve interviewed, among others, Chiba Lotte Marines manager Bobby Valentine and Yakult Swallows first baseman Adam Riggs, and his previous works include “The New Ball Game” and “Rail Fans.”
It remains to be seen if the perceived overseas “Japanese baseball boom” is real or imaginary, but there is no doubt something is happening, as there may now be enough Japanese players and influence from Japan for fans in the U.S. and Canada to seek more knowledge about what we here call “yakyu.”
Finally this week, we’ve heard the number of Japan pro baseball games to be broadcast on terrestrial TV this season will be greatly reduced, but producers are saying that could change later in the year, especially if the pennant races are tight in August and September.
Even if the Yomiuri Giants, for example, are in fourth place going into the stretch run, with a shot at third (and a berth in the “Climax Series”), their games would be meaningful, and it is likely the various networks would re-evaluate the situation and move some of the coverage from cable and satellite TV only, back to the regular channels as well. We’ll see.
Next week: We’ll have a team-by-team capsule preview of the Pacific League season which begins on March 24, and two weeks from now a look at the clubs in the Central League who start their season on March 30.
Contact Wayne Graczyk at: wayne@JapanBall.com