Fighters’ proposed move to Sapporo makes sense

by Wayne Graczyk

Quite a controversy brewing over the proposed relocation of the Nippon Ham Fighters from Tokyo to Sapporo for the 2004 season. The Pacific League club wants to shift its franchise base from the Tokyo Dome to the Sapporo Dome, but the Seibu Lions are trying to block the move, because that team wants to establish Sapporo as a “sub-franchise” and play 20 of its 70 home games in Hokkaido’s largest city.

The Seibu ownership and management has said Sapporo has a history and culture of being a place where all 12 Japanese pro teams can go to play some games, and there should not be a full-time franchise team based there. So, what to do? I believe it is time for the Fighters to move, Seibu should cooperate, and I will make a specific suggestion as to what should be done to decide the matter later in the column.

As one who has been close to the Nippon Ham team for the past 23 years, I am aware the ownership and management of the club is a first-class operation. The personnel involved are experienced professionals who have tried all sorts of promotions and gimmicks to draw the fans.

They are some of the most generous people in baseball anywhere, as many of you fans can attest. For 21 years, the team has provided free tickets to foreigners on the annual Yankees Day and American Ballpark Series events, and the internationally minded Fighters have offered discount ticket deals in conjunction with Tokyo’s Eidan Subways, the Tokyo American Club and U.S. military bases in Japan.

Nippon Ham also has excellent pre-game and mid-game entertainment, the highlight of which is the post-fifth inning performance of the song “YMCA” by cheerleaders in cowgirl-themed outfits, joined by the grounds crew, stadium ushers and fans — when there are some in the stands.

The reality of playing opposite the country favorite Yomiuri Giants in the same ballpark in difficult economic times has seen the crowds dwindle in recent years, and it is a shame more fans do not turn out to see the Fighters and the visiting clubs, because the Pacific League plays just as good and an exciting brand of baseball as its Central League counterparts. The PL is loaded with great talent, starting with the Fighters’ own Triple Crown threat, first baseman Michihiro Ogasawara. The guys play just as hard and deserve more than to be performing in front of a vast expanse of mostly empty seats.

Obviously, though, the lack of winning has not helped; the F’s have not taken the PL pennant since 1981, and they are coming off an extremely disappointing last-place season in 2001. But there have been good years with pennant contention into September in 1996, 1998 and 2000. This year, as of yesterday, the Fighters are 8-5, in third place, a game and a half behind the league-leading Fukuoka Daiei Hawks.

There is no doubt in my mind Nippon Ham could establish a healthy, crowd-pleasing, fan-drawing franchise in Sapporo, similar to the situation the Hawks have instituted in Fukuoka where more than 3 million spectators showed up for home games in 2001.

The Fighters could also give permission to the Giants to continue playing their annual three-game series at the Sapporo Dome, in the same way the Kyojin play at the Fukuoka and Osaka Domes, the Hanshin Tigers at the Osaka Dome, the Orix BlueWave at the Nagoya Dome and the Yakult Swallows at Chiba Marine Stadium — all examples of clubs playing home games at franchise parks of teams in the opposite league.

Anyway, my suggestion to decide if the Fighters should be allowed to become Sapporo’s team is to allow the fans in the city and surrounding areas in Hokkaido to decide what they want, and they can do it by voting. There are 15 games remaining on this year’s schedule to be played at the Sapporo Dome, as follows:

April 23-24 — Yokohama BayStars vs. Chunichi Dragons.
June 23-25 — Yomiuri Giants vs. Hiroshima Carp.
July 5-7 — Seibu Lions vs. Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes.
July 19-21 — Yakult Swallows vs. Hiroshima Carp.
Aug. 13-14 — Yokohama BayStars vs. Hanshin Tigers.
Aug. 31-Sept. 1 — Nippon Ham Fighters vs. Orix BlueWave.

Ballots could be handed out to each person who enters the ballpark at those 15 games, and there would be two choices:

A) I want the Seibu Lions to use Sapporo as a sub-franchise and play 20 games per season at the Sapporo Dome, with other Pacific and Central League teams to also play games here.

B) I want the Nippon Ham Fighters to move to Sapporo and play their home games at the Sapporo Dome, with the Yomiuri Giants allowed to play an annual three-game series here.

Fans would circle the option they prefer, the ballots would be counted, and majority would rule. I would vote for B. In the meantime, since the Fighters apparently cannot move north until 2004, the Lions could be allowed to proceed with their plan to play 20 home games at the Sapporo Dome in 2003, then withdraw if the fans were to vote for Nippon Ham.

If the F’s are allowed to move, I would imagine the Tokyo Dome people would like to invite the Pacific League to continue appearing at the Big Egg, so perhaps the Lions, the Marines and even the Fighters (for old times sake) could play a series or two at the T.D. each year.

Seibu (and Lotte) would also benefit from the withdrawal of Nippon Ham from Tokyo, because fans in the Kanto area wanting to see the Pa League (there are some of us, believe it or not) would have to head for the western Tokyo suburb of Tokorozawa (Seibu) or east to Makuhari (Chiba Lotte).

The Lions’ plan leaves Nippon Ham with all those empty chairs and little hope; a Sapporo Fighters team is really the better option here.