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NPB should do more to spice up All-Star experience

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The final round of the Home Run Derby that preceded Game 1 of the NPB All-Star Series on Friday ended with a 4-4 tie and the player declared as the winner, via tiebreaker, looking around in confusion. It was yet another example that Japanese baseball needs to head back to the drawing board in its approach to the All-Star festivities.

The home run contests have grown stale. They’re rarely beyond moderately entertaining, the exception being last year’s Shohei Otani Invitational, mostly because of the format, which doesn’t lend itself to a lot of home runs being hit, which is kind of an issue.

Japanese baseball’s approach to the All-Star festivities before the games can feel business-like at times, and the league could do with an injection of energy and fun.

The Home Run Derby is the main culprit. First of all, there are usually two of them. Secondly, they start a little over an hour before the real game begins, leading them to feel rushed, which probably contributes to the low overall totals (this year, the five players who competed combined to hit 26 home runs). Then you have days like Friday night, when Yuki Yanagita was hastily declared the winner via tiebreaker (probably because there was a game in less than an hour) after tying the score at 4-4 in the final round and with four of his allotted seven outs still left.

While NPB should look into adding some juice to the Home Run Derby, there’s no need to stop there. Treat the All-Star period as one big fan festival, like the events each team holds after the season.

Instead of playing two games, devote one day to allowing the fans to see the players in fun, new situations, and perhaps give skills competitions a try. Also, bring in the minor leaguers and have the Fresh All-Star Game at the All-Star venue the day before, instead of in a different city as is currently the case.

If NPB officials need any ideas, there’s already a blueprint in South Korea, where the Korea Baseball Organization has done something similar for several years.

This year, in addition to one home run derby held across two days, the KBO held a Perfect Pitcher competition, a timed event where hurlers tried to knock down bats, and a Perfect Hitter event, where batters aimed for targets while hitting off a tee. The league also held its minor league All-Star Game as part of the All-Star weekend.

“The KBO has been having these All-Star events for quite awhile now,” Dan Kurtz, who runs mykbo.net, told The Japan Times. “I believe that a majority of the fans that watch KBO enjoy these events and consider them ‘Fan Service’.

“I think the events such as Perfect Hitter/Pitcher complement the Home Run Race quite nicely. I also think that the players themselves enjoy these events, since it often allows some players who don’t often get a chance to bat/pitch to participate in these events. For example, this year’s Perfect Hitter winner was a pitcher.

“In the past, pitchers have also participated in the Home Run Race and non-pitchers in the pitching events. The one event that was not held this year that seemed to have caught the eye of fans outside of Korea was the Bunt King (who can place Bunts on certain targets for points).”

Korean journalist Kim Sung-min said the league also used to have a Speed King competition, where position players competed to see who could throw hardest off the mound (“it never really settled as a fixture because of injury risk,” he said) from 2005-06 and in 2011, and a pitcher’s home run derby once in 2005.

The KBO has tried to shake things up. About as fun as it got in Japan this year was All-Star second baseman Daichi Suzuki and a few other position players pitching during the home run derby.

But imagine seeing Suzuki try his hand in a pitching contest. Or Yomiuri Giants ace Tomoyuki Sugano in a hitting event. How interested would fans be in watching Otani try to win everything? Maybe some would look silly, but that’s part of the fun for the fans and the other All-Stars watching.

If nothing else, it’d be a change of pace.

“My take on it is that, especially as of the past few years, they’ve flirted with and tried different ideas to show different and fun things to the fans,” Kim said of the KBO. “Sure, All Star game always has been associated with the idea of fun rather than competition (especially in the KBO since it really doesn’t count for any playoff implications), but I think they’ve wanted to amplify that to make it fun for the audience and players by having them try their skills at unlikely things.”

Of course the drawback to implementing this plan in Japan is that fewer fans would see the All-Stars live, as NPB currently holds its games in at least two different cities each year. It could also alter how long each All-Star gets to play, with more pressure to get guys in with one game. Though on the brightside for the players, it would eliminate the travel day.

Still, the weekend could be much better than it is (luckily the games themselves are usually great). So why not look for ways to spice things up and give the fans and the players a new and potentially more enjoyable experience.