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New rules needed for posting system

by Jason Coskrey

Staff Writer

Masahiro Tanaka will probably end up in the majors next year, thanks in no small part to the terms NPB players seem to be willing to accept in regards to the posting system.

Getting a revised system in place (limited to the next two years) would help Tanaka, who was 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA during the regular season for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles and won the Sawamura Award, if he chose to move to MLB, but do little for NPB players.

Any potential revision to the posting system hit a snag during the MLB owners’ meetings on Thursday, but a deal is still expected to be ironed out eventually.

The important thing is, NPB players were willing to accept something that wasn’t exactly to their benefit, instead of working out a better deal.

Japanese players had (and may still have) a chance to fight for a more equitable system but chose to kick the can two years down the road and avoid rocking the boat.

“I think the system has to be tweaked more down the line to give fairness to the players,” said Don Nomura, the agent who went through a failed posting with Hisashi Iwakuma in 2010 and helped Yu Darvish through the process in 2011, in a telephone interview with The Japan Times.

“This is the new rule, and we just have to abide by it. If that’s what they agree upon, that’s what we have to abide by.”

The proposed revisions change little for NPB players, calling for the highest-bidding MLB squad to pay the Japanese team a posting fee equal to the average of the top two bids, as opposed to paying the bid amount as in years past. An MLB club could also face a fine for failing to sign a player after winning his rights.

The process figures to remain as restrictive as ever for Japanese players, who need to be posted by their team, have no say over where they end up, and are forced to return to Japan for at least a year — in hopes of restarting the process or waiting to earn international free agency — if they don’t sign with the MLB team.

“The JPBPA never regarded the old-posting system, nor the new agreement, as proper,” JPBPA executive director Toru Matsubara said as part of a statement released on the union’s website. “The JPBPA thinks the current system is like an auction in which players are treated as if they’re products. The reason why this system exists is Japanese players are required to wait up to nine years to qualify for overseas free agency. We say that’s too long.”

Considering that, it’s a wonder why the union didn’t fight for changes. For things such as having more say in the process or lowering the requirement for international free agency.

It’s likely Tanaka’s status in limbo played a role in the players wanting to get something quickly so as to not get in his way.

“Tanaka was under the spotlight, and this is the way things have turned out,” Rakuten catcher and union head Motohiro Shima told Kyodo News on Thursday. “But more negotiations are needed to make it easier for Japanese players to go (to MLB).”

Posting was more or less created to help owners control the flow of talent to MLB and profit from it, not particularly facilitate it, per se.

The posting system came about after Japanese baseball officials angered their MLB counterparts during the tug of war for the rights to the Hiroshima Carp’s Alfonso Soriano, who was trying to use the retirement loophole to leave Japan for the U.S. as Hideo Nomo had done in 1994. That’s when it was revealed NPB had closed the loophole without alerting MLB officials, which was required by the agreement.

“When they got to New York to have that meeting — these Harvard lawyers on the MLB side and they have a former sportswriter on the Japanese side — they said Hiroshima claimed Soriano because NPB had eliminated the voluntary retirement clause,” noted author and Japanese baseball historian Robert Whiting told The Japan Times. “And the MLB guy says, ‘you did what?!’

“(MLB officials) just said, ‘It’s pointless to have an agreement with you guys, because you don’t live up to the terms.’ So they scrapped the working agreement and that’s how they came up with the posting agreement.”

Mostly left out of the decision-making process were the Japanese players whose careers were going to be affected.

“They never asked the players what they thought,” Whiting said. “They never asked the players union. They just went ahead and did it. And if the players don’t like it, it’s up to them to do something about it.”

If Japanese players are ever going to get a better deal, they’ll have to fight for it, which they’ve proven reluctant to do in the past.

Whiting mentioned that after the original system was agreed upon (in December of 1998) Peter Miller, who represented the U.S. baseball players’ union in Japan, said he would support Japanese players if they wanted to challenge it, but was met with a tepid response.

“He said they just won’t do it” Whiting said. “They just don’t want to make waves.

“It’s the same old story,” Whiting continued. “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down, and harmony is more important than human rights. That’s Japan in a nutshell.”

There have been a few instances of the union standing up to the owners in the past, most famously the two-day strike in 2004, but victories have been few and far between, especially when one notes the considerable power their counterparts in the U.S. wield against a much more powerful entity.

If Japanese players want changes in the posting system, or in the way their free agency is handled in Japan, they’ll have to take a stand, not blindly accept what’s given.

“There’s gotta be some kind of system, but I think the easier solution is to find a trigger where the player has the right to go to the United States,” Nomura said. “That something can trigger it other than free agency. I think teams should be allowed to make a profit from the player’s rights, but there has to be some trigger on the Japanese side that gives the players the right to go to the States.

“That could be six years of service time in Japan. The player earns the right to go over there, and the club may give up his negotiating rights.”