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Events of 10 years ago still reverberate today

by Wayne Graczyk

Ten years ago this month, Japanese baseball went into its deepest and most memorable crisis. In case you were not in Japan then — or have forgotten — here is a brief review of what happened.

The news broke on a Sunday morning, June 13, 2004, and I heard it on the radio while making breakfast. Two Pacific League teams, the Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes, and the Orix BlueWave based in Kobe, were going to merge. There had been rumors earlier that year about possible contraction in the Japan pro baseball ranks but, still, this came as a shock

At first, there was confusion. All that was known was the two clubs had agreed to become one, but what would this do to the structure of Japanese baseball and its two-league, 12-team set-up? Would it go on with 11 teams? No one seemed to know.

Initial speculation surfaced with the suggestion another team would be eliminated, thus leaving the system with 10 ballclubs, and there were even more radical suggestions that an additional two would be dropped, leaving us with only eight teams.

Japanese sports newspapers began to report possible scenarios, trying to predict which franchises might be eliminated or merged. There was even mention of the Yomiuri Giants switching from the Central League to the Pacific League. That is, if the two-league system even survived.

As the long, hot summer began to set in, things seemed to get worse, and it appeared we might see the end of Japanese baseball as we knew it. But then, there was a breakthrough offering a ray of hope.

Takafumi Horie, founder of a website design and Internet company called Livedoor, raised his hand and said, “Sell me the Buffaloes.” However, a core group of team owners, led by Tsuneo Watanabe of the Giants and Yoshiaki Tsutsumi of the Seibu Lions, insisted the merger would go through and the leagues would be contracted.

Meanwhile, young fans wearing Orix and Kintetsu jerseys began appearing on the streets between stadiums and train stations around the country, beckoning crowds going to or leaving games to sign petitions that would later be presented to the NPB commissioner’s office, urging the preservation of the Central and Pacific Leagues and the 12-team structure.

Somewhere along the way, the idea came to maintain the 12-team set-up by forming an expansion team to replace the club lost through the Kintetsu-Orix merger. Hiroshi Mikitani, head of the Rakuten Internet shopping mall conglomerate, followed Horie in saying he wanted to become the owner of a pro baseball team.

Both set up contingent plans to start an expansion club. Both said they would base a new team in the city of Sendai. Horie went so far as to give his potential team the name Livedoor Phoenix.

Negotiations dragged on among team owners, the NPB commissioner’s office and the Japanese baseball players union, but no one ever came through with an idea of how a 10-team or eight-team system would be structured — one league with two five-team divisions? Two four-team leagues?

It all came to a head the weekend of Sept. 18-19 when the players association called a two-day strike and refused to play that Saturday and Sunday. Instead of going home or starting picket lines, however, the players rented stadiums and invited fans to join them for instructional clinics and autograph sessions that turned out to be like mini-festivals. Further work stoppages were threatened if the road to contraction was not closed.

That was a key turning point. The owners who favored shrinking the number of teams were overwhelmed by the players-fans partnership. There was no way the players union, led by chairman Atsuya Furuta, catcher for the Yakult Swallows, was going to stand by and lose as many as 280 jobs, and the fans were not going to watch their teams disappear.

Furuta had stood up to Ryuzo Setoyama, Chiba Lotte Marines representative and chief negotiator on the opposing side, during the negotiations to resolve the crisis.

Realizing the battle was being lost, the owners gave in. Mikitani was awarded the Tohoku expansion franchise as a new Pacific League entity, the Rakuten Eagles. The two-league, 12-team system was maintained, and several new innovations, including interleague play, were introduced for the 2005 season.

The Eagles won the Japan Series in their ninth season in 2013, and Japanese baseball, though not completely problem-free, seems to be alive and well. There is even a reported suggestion by some politicians suggesting NPB should expand to 16 teams to assist in further economic recovery.

I don’t know about that, but I am just glad the player-and-fan power prevailed a decade ago.

Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com