Years from now, when fans look back at the 2011 NPB season, it should be noted somewhere that Hanshin Tigers third baseman Takahiro Arai’s biggest hit came before the season, when the Central League finally relented and shifted its season openers to April 12.
No matter what Arai accomplishes this year, playing the leading role in helping to save CL leaders from themselves will go down as his most important contribution of the year.
As the CL flexed its considerable muscle in the aftermath of the disaster that struck Japan over two weeks ago, the first voice of opposition came from the members of the Japanese Professional Baseball Players Association (JPBPA).
Arai, the union’s leader, was right there on the front lines, arguing his position that baseball should take a back seat and allow the nation to begin to pull itself back together.
When the CL leaders pressed forward with their plans — in essence informing the union its opinion had neither been solicited nor needed — a funny thing happened.
The players dug in.
Japan is a land of tradition where elders are to be respected, hierarchy is to be adhered to, and the status quo is to be maintained all in the pursuit of wa (harmony).
So for the players to not back down from CL officials — especially with the Yomiuri Giants, the king of kings in the baseball world, leading the charge — was no small feat.
The JPBPA has often been looked upon as weak and unable to put up any formidable challenge to the owners.
Its one huge victory came in 2004, when the NPB wanted to rid itself of the financially sinking Kintetsu Buffaloes and merge the two leagues. The players protested and JPBPA chair Atsuya Furuta led a strike, albeit a two-day one, that helped led to the creation of the Orix Buffaloes and Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles.
This time it was Arai facing down the CL and using his savvy to rally government support and popular opinion.
To press forward and play could have had far-reaching consequences.
The CL wanted to play night games when so many had no power, wanted to cheer when so many had lost so much so soon.
How would the public have viewed an institution with so little regard for its countrymen?
With the NPB’s commissioner somehow reduced to little more than a powerless spectator, the JPBPA helped make sure that question will go unanswered.
That’s not to say the players got things done on their own. While things very well may have eventually come down to an owners-vs.-players showdown, the truth is, pressure from the Japanese government and public backlash forced the CL to back down.
Still, the players’ will was the catalyst.
So often derided as toothless, especially when compared to the Major League Baseball Players Association, the JPBA showed some fight behind Arai.
So it won’t matter if Arai is still playing in mid-November when the Japan Series rolls around. The home run he hit in March will go down as the biggest of the season.