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Otani made right decision by choosing to play for Fighters

by Wayne Graczyk

So, the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters got a nice Christmas present with the decision by 18-year-old fire-balling right-handed pitcher Shohei Otani to play for the defending Pacific League championship club rather than head straight for a career in the major leagues. From this point of view, the boy did the right thing, and he will not be sorry.

Notice I said “the boy” who may have thought he is more mature than he actually is, and his subsequent drafting by the Fighters, advice from his coaches, family members and other mentors-and a sweet deal offer from Nippon Ham-caused him to change his mind.

That ¥100 million signing bonus will not be hard to take, and the team symbolically offered him the uniform No. 11 last worn in Hokkaido by Yu Darvish, another high school phenom who performed well in Sapporo for seven years before moving on to the MLB and the Texas Rangers.

The decision to draft Otani turned out to be a brilliant strategical move by the Fighters. The team realized it might be wasting a No. 1 pick but thought just the chance to convince the kid to change his mind was worth the risk. As Nippon Ham Team Executive Director Toshimasa Shimada said after the draft meeting, “We are going to go all-out and try to sign him.”

If Otani were that set on going to the majors now and had no doubts, he probably would have never met with the Japanese ball club in the first place. The fact he agreed to sit down with Fighters general manager Masao Yamada and other team officials indicated there was an opening, and he was willing at least to listen to what they had to say.

As the number of meetings between Otani and the Fighters increased (there were three in all) and likeable field manager Hideki Kuriyama joined the discussions, it became more and more evident the kid was going to stay at home and play, and the Dec. 9 announcement he would be wearing the Nippon Ham uniform came with little surprise or suspense.

As mentioned in our Nov. 4 Baseball Bullet-In, Otani will now be the center of attention in 2013 instead of being lost in some small, obscure rookie minor league town in North America. The Fighters spring camp in Nago, Okinawa, will be a media circus and practices will draw crowds of fans when it opens Feb. 1.

If he is good enough right away to make his varsity debut with Nippon Ham during the coming season, you can bet a capacity crowd will fill Sapporo Dome, providing the team with its first dividend from his contract. If he’s not that good, he is not that close to being a major leaguer anyway.

In any event, Otani will come to realize he is taking the right path and, if his career in Japan develops as it should, there will be plenty of time for the major leagues six or seven years down the road.

Diamond Dust: The Central League has proposed scrapping the three-and-a-half-hour time limit for games, and that is a good idea. There were just too many games that ended in ties in 2011-12, and that plays havoc with the league standings and stats; not to mention the shenanigans employed, as the time limit approached, by teams satisfied with playing to a draw.

The rule was adopted to help save energy following the threat of electrical power problems after the March 11, 2011, Great East Japan Earthquake and subsequent tsunami. Now it is time to go back to the straight 12-inning rule, regardless of the time.

At last look, the Pacific League was hesitant about dropping the rule but, hopefully, it will also go along.

What both leagues really need to do is intensify the NPB campaign to speed up the games. Sure, they have signs in the dugouts reminding all participants to keep the games moving along, and scoreboard clocks time the intervals between innings and during pitching changes, but more needs to be done.

I can’t tell you how many times a scout from a major league team or a visiting spectator from outside Japan told me, “Man, these games take so long.” At least by dropping the three-and-a-half-hour rule, the umpires may get a sense of realization any game could go the full 12 innings, and they will take a more hurry-up approach.

The Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles were poised to sign free agent major league veteran Andruw Jones, and the Japanese sports papers played up the fact the 35-year-old outfielder has hit 434 major league home runs and is one of the bigger names among foreigners to ever sign with a club in Japan.

He’s been here twice before. In 1998, Jones played in Japan as a member of the MLB post-season all-star squad when he was just 21 and in his second full season with the Atlanta Braves. He returned on the same tour in 2006.

Hopefully the Eagles will have better luck with Jones than the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks had with pitcher Brad Penny last season. Also a big league all-star, Penny was expected to produce big time for the Hawks but wound up pitching only one game before bailing out of Japan after failing to adjust.

Jones will be joining fellow countryman Wladimir Balentien, the Tokyo Yakult Swallows slugger and two-time Central League home run king, in Japan. Both come from Willemstad, Curacao, and no doubt Jones will be getting some advice from Balentien about how to succeed in Japanese baseball.


Contact Wayne Graczyk at Wayne@JapanBall.com