/ |

Fate of Seibu Lions uncertain with talk of possible sale

by Wayne Graczyk

Will the Saitama Seibu Lions be sold?

I surely hope not. Despite the problems of its parent company, the franchise has had a colorful 34-year history, and I would like to see it continue.

Apparently, former U.S. Vice President Dan Quayle feels the same way. He is currently chairman of Cerberus Global Investments, which seeks to increase its interest in the Seibu company by about four percent from the current 32.4 percent it holds, leading to speculation some rural Seibu Railway lines would be discontinued and the Lions would be put up for sale.

Quayle was recently on news programs, and I saw and heard him express his confidence the Lions will not be sold.

“I don’t want to sell the Seibu Lions,” he said emphatically. “I love that baseball team.”

The Seibu tradition began in 1979 when the company bought the Crown Lighter Lions, based in Fukuoka, and moved the team’s base to the newly constructed Seibu Lions Stadium in Tokorozawa, a suburb west of Tokyo in Saitama Prefecture.

It had been the dream of Seibu chairman Yoshiaki Tsutsumi to own and operate a professional ball team to go along with his other lucrative businesses that included the extensive Seibu Railway lines and department stores, Seiyu supermarkets and Prince Hotels. He had originally had the 30,000-seat stadium built with the idea of having all 12 Central and Pacific League teams play about a 30-game card there each season. When the Fukuoka club became available, however, Tsutsumi jumped on it, and the Seibu Lions were born.

At first, the team was lousy, playing like an expansion team and finishing dead last in the Pacific League in 1979. But the team quickly became competitive, winning back-to-back Japan Series titles in 1982-83. In fact, Seibu won 11 Pacific League pennants and eight Japan Series between 1982 and 1994.

There were great teams with great Japanese and foreign players, including Koji Akiyama, Kazuhiro Kiyohara, Tsutomu Ito, Kimiyasu Kudo, Hisanobu Watanabe (the current manager), Terry Whitfield, Steve Ontiveros, Ty Van Burkleo and Orestes Destrade.

Access to the ballpark from Ikebukuro and Shinjuku in downtown Tokyo became easier with the extension of two Seibu rail lines linked directly to Seibu Kyujo-mae Station, just a one-minute walk from the stadium gate. The fans came in droves to watch an exciting team in a beautiful country-like setting.

Then Tsutsumi decided to cover the field with a dome in 1998, and the atmosphere at Lions games seemed to lose a lot of its charm. Sure, it is great on rainy days to not have a postponement but, in fine weather, the fans are sitting there wishing the roof had not been added.

The Seibu conglomerate went into a financial tailspin and in 2005 Tsutsumi was arrested in connection with a cook-the-books scandal. The Seiyu retail business was eventually taken over by Walmart, and there were rumors the Lions were put up for sale, but a buyer that would agree to purchase the ballclub and stadium and keep the team in Tokorozawa, could not be found.

The franchise then got a financial shot in the arm in 2007, receiving a $52 million payoff from the Boston Red Sox as the posting fee for star pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka. Seibu Dome was renovated, and the team took on a new identity with a fresh logo as the Saitama Seibu Lions. Under Watanabe, the team won the 2008 Japan Series and remains competitive, but now comes this new threat.

Current Seibu company president Takashi Goto has been quoted as saying, “There is no way we would consider selling the team. The Seibu Lions ballclub is a symbol of our firm’s revitalization.”

Still, fans are uneasy about the situation. Japanese baseball needs the Seibu Lions, and it would seem difficult to find a suitable buyer who would maintain the franchise in Tokorozawa and keep the Pacific League presence, along with the Chiba Lotte Marines, in the Tokyo area.

Please, Dan Quayle and Cerberus, Takashi Goto and Seibu, do what it takes to prevent the sale of this club.


Friends & fans: The 2013 edition of my Japan Pro Baseball Fan Handbook & Media Guide is now available. It is the complete English-language guide to Japanese baseball and includes league and team directories, team rosters, league schedules, profiles of the foreign players, statistics from past seasons, directions to the stadiums, ticket prices and much more, packed into 132 pages.

The quickest way to get your copy in Japan is to order directly from me. Please send ¥1,000 in cash, Japanese postage stamps or postal check “kawase,” along with your name and address, to: Wayne Graczyk, 1-12-18 Kichijoji Higashi-cho, Musashino-shi, Tokyo-to, 180-0002. It is also on sale at Tokyo Dome, and fans outside Japan can order through the JapanBall.com website.

* * *

Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com