Apparently, my ability to predict where Japanese free agent ballplayers would sign new contracts is no better than my infamous skill at picking pennant winners. You may recall in the Nov. 21 Baseball Bullet-In, I speculated on which teams the three high-profile Japanese free agents would eventually sign contracts with for the 2000 season. Missed them all: O-for-3.

I said ex-Hiroshima Carp third baseman Akira Eto would go with the Yokohama BayStars, former Fukuoka Daiei Hawks pitcher Kimiyasu Kudo would join the Seattle Mariners or Colorado Rockies, and departing Yokohama bullpen ace Kazuhiro Sasaki would check in with the New York Mets.

As we now know, Eto and Kudo were bagged by the Yomiuri Giants, and Sasaki accepted the offer of the Mariners (at least I had the right country in two of three!). Of interest will be how NHK-TV handles the situation with Sasaki. Are they going to satellite broadcast every Mariners game? Break into the action in the eighth or ninth inning of a contest when Sasaki gets the call?

They sometimes cut off a game when a Japanese starter (Hideo Nomo, Masato Yoshii, Hideki Irabu) gets removed; they might as well pick up the scene when Sasaki is brought in to relieve.

Looking to 2001, the next Japanese free agent pitcher to look to MLB will be Yakult Swallows right-hander Kenjiro Kawasaki, according to the Chunichi Sports. The Central League leader with 17 victories in 1998, Kawasaki slumped in ’99 to 7-11 but will go all-out to win as many as possible in 2000, attract the attention of American scouts and bag a multimillion dollar deal a year from now.

* * * The preliminary Central and Pacific League schedules have been released, and pro ball games will (finally) be played at the Nagano Olympic Stadium. The 35,000-seat facility, used for the opening and closing ceremonies and certain events at the 1998 Winter Games, has been fully converted to a baseball park, and the Seibu Lions and Orix BlueWave will play there on Saturday and Sunday, May 20-21.

Since this is a leap year, there will be three All-Star Games played, and the trend is being followed to stage Game 3 at a countryside ball park. This year, the final All-Star tilt will be at the new Nagasaki Prefecture Stadium in Kyushu on Tuesday, July 25. This follows All-Star games at Tokyo Dome on Saturday, July 22, and Green Stadium Kobe on Sunday, July 23.

Also, it appears someone was listening when complaints surfaced last October that there is too much “dead time” between the end of the regular season and beginning of the Japan Series. Our Dan Moscoe wrote a “Sports Scope” column on the subject, and fans, media members and players themselves voiced dissatisfaction with the system.

The pennant race schedule, printed preseason, actually ends at the end of September, and the Japan Series begins the third (sometimes fourth) Saturday of October. Makeup games take the regular season through about Oct. 10, but if the races have already been decided, there is still three weeks of low-interest baseball — or none at all. Moreover, with six teams playing at home in domed stadiums, there are fewer rainouts to be made up.

This year, the Pacific League considered all this and is taking two steps to correct the problem: 1) They have inserted more makeup dates earlier in the season. 2) They have posted a handful of random one-game series between Sept. 30 and Oct. 7.

For example, the Seibu Lions host the Kintetsu Buffaloes in Tokorozawa Sept. 30, then play the Marines at Chiba on Oct. 1, play the Hawks at Fukuoka Oct. 3, the BlueWave at Kobe Oct. 5, and finish at home against the Nippon Ham Fighters Oct. 7. It’s a step in the right direction, but still more needs to be done. Now that the Sports Day national holiday has been changed from Oct. 10 to a “floating date” on the second Monday of October, both Japanese leagues should consider scheduling (hopefully) climactic three-game, regular season-closing series on Saturday, Sunday and Monday of the Sports Day weekend.

The New York Mets 2000 schedule has been posted on the Internet, with game starting times listed by Eastern Standard Time. So it seems strange to see their first two games against the Chicago Cubs appearing with starting times of 5 a.m. on March 29 and 30. That’s because the games are being played prime time in Japan, at Tokyo Dome, so fans in New York (and Chicago where they’ll start at 4 a.m.), can watch with breakfast, kind of the way we watch football’s Super Bowl here in the Far East.

* * * The Chiba Lotte Marines will sport new visitor uniforms this coming season, in the style of the Cleveland Indians, San Diego Padres, New York Mets, Yakult Swallows and Fukuoka Daiei Hawks. The Nikkan Sports ran an illustration of what the new shirts will look like: black with white lettering, piping and trim, and they look great. Bobby Valentine who trashed Lotte’s pink-and-white colors when he took over as Chiba’s manager in 1995, would be proud.

Finally this week, the Universal movie, “For Love of the Game,” starring Kevin Costner, opens later this month at theaters in Japan. The flick had originally been scheduled for release here last autumn, then was pushed back to this coming March, which would have been great timing with the opening of baseball season. But now it’s been moved to the dead of winter. Whatever; it promises to be a good one. I hope the year 2000 will be a good one for you. Happy New Year.

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