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NPB players in need of strong union like MLBPA

by Robert Whiting

Last of four-part

Part I — Is the MLB destroying Japan’s national pastime?
Part II — Foreign managers change face of Japanese game
Part III — NPB needs major reform, vision to prosper like MLB

Another reason why a merger is unlikely to manifest itself is Major League Baseball’s new interest in China, where the Yankees may play Opening Day in 2008.

That country’s huge untapped market and the apparent willingness of Chinese officials to cooperate with the MLB, especially if they can one-up longtime adversary Japan in the process, are vital.

Given all this, it is easier to imagine an MLB Asia Division with entirely new teams in Tokyo, Osaka, Beijing, Shanghai, Seoul and Taipei, partially stocked with new local and foreign talent, than it is to conceive of a cooperative involving NPB and MLB officials. Think NFL Europe.

There is talk in Japan of forming an Asian League, particularly in the Yomiuri Giants front office, which has interests in China and a following in South Korea.

This would be a logical extension of the Asia Series, a postseason tournament among the champions of Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and China, established in 2004.

However, the odds of that actually happening in the foreseeable future, or before the MLB solidifies its position in the region, are not high, given the inability of NPB teams to work well with each other and the proven power and ability of MLB executives to organize things.

A planned postseason Japan-South Korea series was recently scrapped.

Whether the NPB winds up looking like the Russian Pro Hockey League remains to be seen, but the NPB will no doubt stay afloat in one form or another.

The leagues are in the process of changing from the old one-engine model where the Giants, with their nightly nationwide broadcasts, carried the game to one that relies on developing smaller regional alliances.

The Softbank Hawks draw over two million fans a year in Fukuoka, and make over 900 million yen a year in TV rights sales, while Lotte and Nippon Ham, which increased attendance 25 percent after moving to Hokkaido from Tokyo, appear to have sturdy, if limited, fan bases in Chiba and Sapporo, respectively.

There is still a healthy interest in the game in Japan. There is too much baseball history and the country produces too many top quality players for the Japanese pro game to ever die out.

Interest in high school and college baseball has been given new life thanks to teeny bopper idol Yuki Saito, an 18-year-old right-handed pitcher who led Waseda Jitsugyo to a national title last summer at Koshien, pitching four complete games in four consecutive days, while frequently mopping his brow with his trademark handkerchief and setting female hearts aflutter.

Saito passed up a chance to go to the pros to pitch for Waseda University, where he hopes to “find himself,” therefore earning Big Six college baseball its first new TV contract in years.

It was fan passion for the NPB that caused the first player strike in the history of the Japanese game back in 2004.

The catalyst was a merger between two financially ailing Pacific League teams, the Orix Blue Wave and the Kintetsu Buffaloes, which threatened to upset the long-standing balance of six teams per league and induce further contraction.

Public opposition was so intense that the players union, which historically has lacked the power and solidarity of the MLBPA, was compelled to take action — although it characteristically limited its walkout to one weekend, profusely apologized for the interruption and provided compensatory free autograph and baseball clinic sessions.

The result was the creation of a new franchise in Sendai, the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles.

But the union is weak and that is a problem. It could do much more for its players in demanding better conditions.

Like the NPB players, MLB players once stayed in cheap hotels and traveled by bus or train. Then Marvin Miller’s famous union swung into action and that all changed.

The strength of the MLBPA is one of the two most important differences between the North American and Japanese pro games.

(The other is, as previously mentioned, U.S. taxpayers subsidized stadium giveaways and generous depreciation allowances. Absent these taxpayer subsidies, the big money to pay $50 million posting fees would not be there.)

Consider the NPB’s free agency rules, which now require nine years of service to qualify — as opposed to six years for MLB. They are, as one analyst put it, a “model of obfuscation,” designed to frustrate any player from choosing freely where he wants to work.

One of the conditions of being a “free agent” in Japan is accepting a “larger” salary cut than would otherwise be allowed.

Another feature of the system is arbitration by the commissioner or his representative, an arrangement without the slightest pretense of independence.

Much (but not all) that is wrong with NPB could possibly be fixed by instituting real free agency. The differential in working conditions between the MLB and NPB would, over time, disappear if NPB teams had to compete for talent the way MLB teams do.

The salary differential would remain, though even that may not be as great as it appears if one counts all the under-the-table payments in Japan.

One could make the case that Japanese baseball would benefit from as strong a union as Major League Baseball has. But don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen.

One might also make the claim that subsidized ballparks and North American tax subsidies on player salaries constitute an unfair trade disadvantage for Japanese teams in the market for players. But don’t expect the WTO to be taking that particular case up in the near future.

And so what of the future of baseball in the only major country of the world in which it is still the national sport, as Bobby Valentine likes to point out?

But the NPB appears likely to continue the pattern of the past few years — losing its top players, but still producing enough good athletes to field a high-caliber league.

Said sportswriter Rob Smaal, who is producing a film on Japanese baseball, “I can see NPB sort of paralleling what’s happening in Brazilian soccer. Even though the very best may leave, the country still produces more than enough quality players to stock their own domestic league.

“I think the same can be said of Japanese ballplayers going to the major leagues. Moreover, Japanese baseball may also be turning into a way station for other Asian players hoping to make it to MLB.

“Players like South Korean slugger Lee Seung Yeop have elected to take the step up to Japanese baseball before taking a crack at the majors, so we could see more of the top Taiwanese and Korean players making stops in Japan.”

Award-winning chemical engineer and longtime baseball fan Fusakazu Hayano, as he looked forward to another season of overdosing on MLB telecasts.

“I guess many young, promising baseball players will appear in Japanese professional baseball, one after another, because of the possibility of going to the major leagues,” Hayano said.

“Japanese fans enjoy Japanese players playing in the U.S. and watching the games on NHK, but Nippon pro ball teams have their own enthusiastic fans who will continue to support their favorite teams even if the big stars leave the team.

“Japanese baseball has to adapt to the changing situation. We have to prepare ourselves for the probability that our big stars will leave Japan someday and so must the people who run the Japanese game. Global competition is a fact of life. That’s a lesson that the American Big Three automakers learned.”

Finally, Masaaki Nagino, Central League planning director, added these thoughts: “I don’t think the MLB is ruining Japanese baseball. Japan is a big supplier of baseball talent to the MLB and it is the leading market for MLB goods. So that is a sign of soundness in Japanese ball.

“When the MLB stops sending scouts to Japan to find new talent, that is a bad sign. Yes, we have lost a lot of stars since Hideo Nomo left, but we can’t cry over spilled milk. There is no way for us to stop this outflow.

“We have to establish a better supply of talent, a broader and deeper pool. And we must do this with a declining national birth rate and competition from other sports like soccer. If our game fails, it’s because of our lack of effort.

“But the pendulum moves both ways, and the success of Japanese in the major leagues will help motivate youngsters to choose baseball over other sports.”

Times have indeed changed. Twenty years ago, when I was writing “You Gotta Have Wa,” if you asked Americans what their impression of Japan was, they would speak of tariff barriers and Japan Inc.

If you asked Japanese their impressions of Americans, they would say arrogant, blowhard, lazy and poor losers.

“Uneducated and illiterate,” was the publicly expressed opinion of Speaker of the Japanese Parliament in 1990.

Moreover, 20 years ago, the idea of a Japanese star going to the States to play, something the Americans would have been regarded as preposterous and considered traitorous in Japan.

As Sadaharu Oh once put it, “If I had tried to go the MLB when I was a player, the fans would have never forgiven me.”

However, in today’s era of satellite TV and the Internet, Americans increasingly talk of their fascination with Japanese film, video games, animation, manga, fashion, design and “Hello Kitty.” And Ichiro and Matsuzaka.

In the summer of 2006, for the first time ever, a major U.S. television network aired a documentary on high school baseball in Japan.

In 2007, mlb.com produced a documentary on the history of Japan baseball — both manifestations of the growing media interest in the Japanese game.

Whereas English language material on the game was a rarity, there are now several outstanding sources of information on yakyu: Among them Michael Westbay’s japanesebaseball.com, Gary Garland’s japanbaseballdaily.com and Bob Bavasi’s japanball.com, all of whom are working overtime to promote awareness of the game in the West, a task that NPB officials have conspicuously ignored.

Surveys taken in Japan do seem to indicate that 21st century Japanese are more willing than their predecessors to work with and for foreigners and let their children marry them.

The aforementioned Valentine was the centerpiece of a marketing campaign by a Japanese bank, giving him an iconic status heretofore matched only by Hollywood movie stars.

Also, where once Westerners in Japan who spoke Japanese were regarded as in the same category as a trained seal or dancing bear, that is no longer true. It’s now expected.

Whereas Hideo Nomo was initially treated as a pariah when he migrated to the Los Angeles Dodgers, in 1995, these days going to the MLB is considered the thing to do.

Today in our borderless world, Japanese baseball fans don’t care where Japanese stars play, just so long as they can see it on cable or download it onto their iPods.

Baseball has always been a useful prism through which to view U.S.-Japanese relations. In the Pacific War, in the jungles of the South Pacific, “To hell with Babe Ruth,” was a commonly used insult.

It was a long way from there to the “Ichiro” chant one hears in Seattle. And the $51 million posting for Matsuzaka.

More important, these Japanese players have also set an example for their fellow Japanese.

Many of these players, like Tadahito Iguchi, Hideki Matsui and Ichiro, behave in such a self-assured way and are altogether more secure in their identity as practitioners of a craft — coping with handling the pressure and the expectations that come from working in a foreign country and feeling comfortable about not having to rank themselves as either superior or inferior — that they can be seen as models for how other Japanese citizens might behave in their particular international endeavors.

Baseball has played a role in bringing the U.S. and Japan closer. It has taught us there is always something that we can still learn from each other.

The more contact we have through these mutually played games, the more we learn from and influence one another. North America is not destroying Japanese baseball, it has given it a much bigger stage.

Part I — Is the MLB destroying Japan’s national pastime?
Part II — Foreign managers change face of Japanese game
Part III — NPB needs major reform, vision to prosper like MLB

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