The current era of American managers in Japan has come to an end with Marty Brown out as skipper of the Rakuten Eagles, and another “era” is ending in Japanese baseball with the disbanding of the Shonan Searex.
The Yokohama BayStars have announced the name of its Eastern League farm team, after a decade as the Searex, will revert back to the one used 10 years ago — the Yokohama BayStars — or whatever the team will be called in 2011; Japanese media reports on Friday said the team will soon be sold.
Until the establishment of the Shonan club in 2000, the ni-gun or second-team units of all 12 teams in Japanese baseball had the same names, and players wore the same uniforms as their parent teams.
There are two minor leagues in Japan — the Eastern and Western — and each of the Central and Pacific League teams has only one farm team, so there are no levels such as Rookie, Single-A, Double-A and Triple-A as in North America. It is no secret farm league games in Japan are played for convenience and player development with little or no thought to monetary profit.
Attendance figures are not even included in box scores and game reports, and some games are played at what might be called fields instead of stadiums. However, some Japanese minor league games are played at the country’s main ballparks, including Tokyo Dome.
This season, farm teams played games throughout Japan, from Wakkanai on the northern tip of Hokkaido to the brand new 30,000-seat Onoyama Stadium in Naha, Okinawa.
The BayStars tried to change things with the establishment of the Searex, giving the farm team its own identity with a separate name, colors (aqua and white) and uniforms. The Shonan club was based in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, south of Yokohama and home to a sprawling U.S. Navy base.
The idea was to do it the American style, hoping to draw some fans to the 5,000-seat Yokosuka Stadium with exciting baseball and fun attractions of the style typically experienced at stateside minor league ball parks.
They even sent a sales representative to the navy base to pay a courtesy call and let the U.S. sailors know there was a team in town and a place to enjoy watching a ballgame very near their base.
Two other Japanese teams followed in renaming their farm outlets. The Orix BlueWave, also in 2000, entered into a sponsorship agreement with Surpass, a Kansai-based company, and the Orix ni-gun entity became the Kobe Surpass.
In 2005, the Seibu Lions also acquired a sponsor who paid for the naming rights to the parent club’s stadium and its farm team. Invoice, a communications company, was the backer, and Seibu Dome became Invoice Dome, while the Lions second team also became known as Invoice.
That lasted two seasons and, in 2007, the sponsor changed to Goodwill, a Tokyo-based human resources company. The ballpark became Goodwill Dome, the farm team was the Goodwill Lions and the deal was supposed to cover five seasons through the end of 2011, but it lasted only a year.
In 2008, it was back to Seibu Dome and the Seibu Lions of the Eastern League.
There is currently an imbalance of teams in Japan’s minor leagues. Since the merger in 2005 of the Orix BlueWave and Kintetsu Buffaloes in the Osaka-Kobe area and the establishment of the expansion Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles in Sendai, the Western League has operated with five teams, while the Eastern League includes seven.
This season, Eastern League teams played a 108-game schedule while their Western League cousins saw 104 games on their calendar.
In North America, there are postseason playoffs at most every minor league level. In Japan, there is but a single game to decide the best farm team.
This season’s minor league title game, between the Eastern League winner Chiba Lotte Marines and the Western League champ Hanshin Tigers, was to be played on Saturday at Hard Off Eco Stadium in Niigata.
Getting back to the Searex, though, one reason the team name is being retired is obviously the extra costs involved. For example, all the nearly 70 players in the organization need a Shonan uniform in addition to their BayStars outfits, so they can conveniently be called up to the varsity or sent down to the farm at a moment’s notice throughout the year.
Money is saved by not having to make the extra unis, and the need to cut down on expenses is probably more important today than a decade ago.
Nice try by the BayStars to start a trend to make Japanese baseball a little more American style. Too bad it is one that just did not catch on, and it is unlikely minor league baseball in Japan will ever look anything like the farm leagues affiliated with the American and National Leagues on the other side of the Pacific.
In a semi-related development, the Nagasaki Saints franchise of Japan’s five-team independent Shikoku-Kyushu Island League, announced on Sept. 21 it will not participate in the 2011 season.
This comes on the heels of a Sept. 17 announcement the independent Japan-Future Baseball League will suspend all activities after one of its teams, the Osaka Gold Villicanes, has said it cannot come up with finances for next season.
Contact Wayne Graczyk at: wayne@JapanBall.com