Nippon Professional Baseball commissioner Ryozo Kato has a vision for Japanese baseball that stretches far beyond the nation’s borders.
That proposed Japan-U.S. global world series that had fans salivating over the winter?
Only the beginning.
At the head of an organization that frequently can’t seem to get out of its own way, Kato is trying to ensure the prosperity of Japanese baseball through widespread growth on a global scale.
It’s not just cosmetic changes the commissioner is after. Kato’s master plan would see Japanese baseball played in various forms all over the world on an annual basis.
“What I’d like to do each year is something very attractive for Japanese fans,” Kato said at a recent meeting of the Foreign Sportswriters Association of Japan.
“One year, it might be a club championship series. One year, it might be the World Baseball Classic. Yet another year, it might be openers played by Japanese teams on the (U.S.) West Coast or elsewhere.”
This global initiative comes from the progressive-thinking mind of a 69-year-old former Japanese ambassador to the United States (2001-2008) who is an avid fan of baseball in both Japan and North America.
Following the example of Major League Baseball, which has opened past seasons in Japan, Kato would like to maintain the global interest in Japanese baseball created by the WBC and open an NPB season abroad.
“I hope openers for Japanese baseball teams can be hosted in many different places,” Kato said. “Like on the East Coast, the Midwest, West Coast and Canada. That might be a good plan for Japan.
“Since Japan has fortunately won two straight titles in the WBC, there is some interest among American and Canadian baseball fans,” Kato said.
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Having served his country as a diplomat in the U.S., Australia and Egypt, among other places, Kato thinks the sport would benefit from a more internationalized outlook going forward.
“In the long-term interests of the sport of baseball, clearly it’s a benefit for baseball to get more globalized,” Kato said “Not just in a philosophical sense, but in a commercial sense.
“Look at soccer in Japan, it’s big. It’s an international sport. Way more globalized than baseball. How far can baseball go? This is the fundamental item we are faced with. I am for the globalization of baseball. Not just for Asia and Oceania, but Africa as well.”
The issue at the forefront of Kato’s plans is the prospect of a global world series between the champions of the NPB and MLB.
“Actually, that was not something I initiated,” Kato said. “(MLB) commissioner Bud Selig, he raised this topic in New York. It was on the fifth of January. As soon as I was ushered into his office, he opened up the conversation by saying ‘Let’s have a world series.’ “
Should the plan ever come to fruition, the NPB commissioner can see it expanding to include the top teams from other countries as well.
“It can be a U.S.-Japan series, before it becomes a global series,” Kato said. “At the present moment, U.S. baseball and Japanese baseball are the big two. A club championship — not a national team competition — but a club championship series between the United States and Japan would make tremendous sense. Later on, perhaps we can transform it into a global series with many other countries.”
In the same vein, Kato would also be in favor of a league encompassing teams from various Asian nations.
“Someday I would like to see (South) Korea, Taiwan, and China be apart of an Asian league,” Kato said.
“Between the East Coast and West Coast (in the U.S.) it takes five hours,” the commissioner added, referring to the travel times between some major league franchises in North America. “From Japan to Seoul it’s only two hours. Even to Beijing, it’s four hours or something like that. Just range-wise, it’s not impossible to have an Asian league.”
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In a sense, Japanese baseball has already gone global with the success of Japanese stars in the MLB since Hideo Nomo joined the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1995.
Much of the foreign interest in professional and amateur baseball in Japan stems from teams and fans scouring the nation trying to find the next Ichiro Suzuki or Daisuke Matsuzaka.
For years, many in the Japanese baseball hierarchy have regarded the MLB as a predator that will trigger the end of the Japanese game by robbing the sport of its stars.
That rhetoric reached a fevered pitch last summer, as high schooler Yusei Kikuchi responded favorably to overtures from MLB clubs, before entering the NPB draft. That came in the wake of amateur Junichi Tazawa drawing the ire of many by skipping the draft to join the Boston Red Sox last year.
Kato understands the position of many of his contemporaries but thinks it’s normal for players to be attracted by the allure of the MLB.
“I think it’s only natural for the young, talented Japanese guys like Kikuchi to be interested in playing Major League Baseball in the United States,” Kato said.
“Of course, there is disappointment here among the baseball fans that we lose the top talent to the United States. But Japanese are doing very well overseas. Particularly for them, and for some Japanese-Americans in the United States, it’s a special note of satisfaction to know Japanese players are doing very well in the major leagues.”
The commissioner says he can’t prevent players from leaving for the “greener pastures” of the MLB. Instead, the former diplomat thinks the best thing Japanese baseball officials can do is educate players, rather than stand in their way.
“The NPB, including myself, should provide objective information on the difference in lifestyle and culture between the United States and Japan,” Kato said. “Because this is the foundation on which players play baseball. Therefore, I am emphasizing the importance of my providing proper, correct information.
“If players in Japan understand that and still wish to go to the United States immediately after graduation from high school, there’s no way for me to stop them.”
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Kato wants to continue to make the game attractive to fans in Japan, but stressed it’s not a job for the commissioner’s office alone. Japanese owners must stand up and do their part as well.
“The important thing for Major League Baseball and Japan’s professional baseball is that owners share the enthusiasm and commitment and concern for baseball,” Kato said. “It’s not just my business, it’s their business. . . . They should have enthusiasm and a shared sense for further promoting baseball in Japan.”
Getting all 12 franchises on the same page and working for the same goal is easier said than done.
The structure of the NPB favors those in power, the old guard, and asking them to share the wealth for the common good is a challenge.
“I have to engage in the process of persuasion because I can’t force the team owners to be in line with me,” Kato said. “However, once we persuade them just a little, there’s some difference there and it can, I hope, generate some incentive for change.”
The commissioner stressed that action, no matter how small, is key for the progression of the game.
“Change is a very popular word,” Kato said. “Instead of ‘change’ we have to ‘choose.’ We have to come up with choices rather than just saying change, change, change. Change is something very abstract.”
To that extent, Kato says he has a long way in order to realize his goals for Japanese baseball.
“If I’m a .300 hitter, I would think of myself as a great commissioner,” Kato said. “My batting average now is .200 as a commissioner. But I would like to go step by step.
“I am Japanese. I live in Japan. My home country is Japan, where a quantum jump approach will not work. So I have to go to a step-by-step approach. The important thing is I be consistent.”
Kato voiced his opinion on a wide range of other issues during his discussion.
• The commissioner was not in favor of a rumored MLB global draft, which would allow major league teams to pursue young talent from around the globe.
“Commissioner Selig did not raise that (issue) with me,” Kato said. “My assumption is, this global draft is not really directed at Japan. Maybe Latin American countries, I don’t know. But if he had raised that (issue), I may have expressed my reservations. It’s a bit too early. Baseball is not quite as global the way soccer is. Therefore, the U.S. is much too much in a strong position over the rest of the world.
“But as a matter of principal, I’m not against a global draft. However, this message from the United States didn’t come to me. It wasn’t raised by Commissioner Selig.
“I took it as a message from the United States with the position of strength, not on a equal basis. So I may have expressed my reservations. Fortunately I did not have to express that because it was not raised.”
• Kato is also not particularly enamored with the use of the designated hitter.
“I don’t like the DH,” Kato said. “If a designated hitter is chosen as MVP, I will feel a bit disappointed.
“Mickey Mantle, he played through injuries. Hank Aaron did the same, Willie Mays did the same, Stan Musial, the same.”
• Kato also expressed his disappointment that last year’s managerial fiasco involving Bobby Valentine and the Chiba Lotte Marines, was played out in public.
“We tried very hard to calm them down,” Kato said. “I sent my representatives to the Marines’ park to quiet down the fans.
“Bobby Valentine may be a controversial figure in a way, but I think he has done a lot more good for Japan’s baseball than bad. He reinvigorated professional baseball in Japan. He and Trey Hillman (former Nippon Ham manager) and a long time ago Don Blasingame (former manager of the Hanshin Tigers and Nankai Hawks), they gave a great contribution to baseball in Japan.
“So I really wished to see an honorable retreat for Bobby Valentine.”
• The commissioner also touched on the breakdown of the WBC.
“The World Baseball Classic is something which the MLB is responsible for,” Kato said. “Not like an Olympic Games. It’s not under international rules. Because MLB is the sole host of the World Baseball Classic. Therefore there will be a limit in terms of profit Japan can expect.”
• NPB expansion is another thing the commissioner would like to see in the future.
“My personal hope is that we go in that direction,” Kato said. “Niigata is one, Matsuyama is another and maybe one more team or so in Kyushu,” he added, thinking in terms of possible destinations for an expansion. It is very difficult for me to tell you what our exact plans are, but I am for expansion.”