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A Happy New Year to all readers of the “Baseball Bullet-In” out there.

One of the more interesting stories that appeared in the sports pages here over the holidays was the speculation piece saying former Texas Rangers 10-time All-Star catcher Ivan Rodriguez is considering playing for a Japanese team during the 2003 season. Two questions come to mind after reading this:

1) How serious is “Pudge” about wanting to play here?

2) Could a foreign catcher be successful in Japanese baseball?

According to the article, Rodriguez’s agent, Gary Moorad, was quoted as saying, “There has been some interest (from Japan). We’re following up and are open-minded.”

In the past, agents for superstar major leaguers, including Nolan Ryan, have used the “Japan card” for leverage in trying to get a better contract over there. It could be that is what Moorad is doing, just blowing hot air.

Japanese sports newspapers have suggested the former American League MVP might be a good fit with the Hanshin Tigers or Nippon Ham Fighters, but that was before the F’s got former Chicago Cub Angel Etchevarria and announced they were keeping D.T. Cromer, so they already have two foreign position players.

The Tigers, though, have only George Arias on their gaikokujin non-pitcher roster and are looking to sign another alien hitter. They have some money too, especially since they did not have to withdraw from the bank to pay free-agent Norihiro Nakamura who returns to the Kintetsu Buffaloes. But Hanshin is in the Central League where there is no DH, and they have an excellent (though injury-prone) catcher in Akihiro Yano.

Would they get Rodriguez to play another position? First base? Left field? Arias is the first baseman, and the Tigers have a load of talent in the outfield, especially after acquiring free-agent Tomoaki Kanemoto from Hiroshima. They could put Rodriguez at first, move Arias to third and relegate last year’s third sacker, Atsushi Kataoka, to pinch hitting which they probably would have done anyway, had they gotten Nakamura to guard the hot corner.

There would seem to be no reason why a foreigner could not be successful as a catcher in Japan, but those who have tried it (Adrian Garrett with the Carp in 1978 and Mike Diaz with the Lotte Orions in 1990) said the language barrier was too tough to overcome, and they kept getting crossed up on pitches after flashing the signals.

In 2000, there was a similar situation when another former major league All-Star free-agent catcher was signed by the Chunichi Dragons. Dave “Dingo” Nilsson was hired to play left field, but then-Dragons manager Senichi Hoshino tried to experiment with Nilsson behind the plate. In the middle of a preseason exhibition game, Hoshino suddenly told the Australian to move from the outfield to catcher. The guy was so confused, not knowing the language or the pitchers, he had no clue what to do, and his season went on to be a disaster. He spent most of the year on the Chunichi farm team.

Curiously, Hoshino is now the Hanshin manager, and it is unlikely he would want to go through a similar experience with Rodriguez. But we’ll see. “Pudge” has seen action in Japan before on major league postseason tours, he’s obviously a bona-fide MLB star in his prime at age 31, and his bat should help any team.

I would like to use the second half of this baseball column to air a gripe regarding another sport and its telecasting here in Japan. First, I’d like to thank the National Football League and the Gaora TV channel for carrying several 2002 regular-season games and playoffs this month, live with English commentary. However . . .

The situation was much better the past three seasons when SKY PerfecTV! sold its NFL Season Package and offered the viewers a choice of five live games each Monday morning (Japan time), plus you got the Thanksgiving games, Thursday night games, Saturday games in late December and all the playoffs through the conference semifinals. A full schedule was provided prior to the start of the season, and the package was well worth the 20,000 yen price.

We got to see most of the Stateside commercials during timeouts, the in-studio halftime analysis show by whatever (U.S.) network was carrying the game, periodic reports, highlights and scores from other games. It was just like watching the game in America. Having been “spoiled” by all that, fans in Japan have been reduced to Gaora’s one or two games-per-week live coverage on Mondays (no choice of game), with no Thanksgiving, no Saturday games and only some of the playoffs shown live. Without a schedule, I never knew what games would be aired until the day before.

The U.S. commercials are gone, there are no out-of-town reports or scores, no halftime shows in English, and while Japanese announcers on the main channel talk about the plays during timeouts, the interlude on the bilingual sub (English) channel is filled with the most obnoxious heavy metal acid rock song you’ve ever heard, spiked with four-letter words.

I don’t know the title or the group and don’t want to know. I am certainly not looking to buy the CD or promote it, but wonder why the Gaora producers would select such music or why the NFL would approve it. Ow, my ears!

What’s more, Eagle 810, the U.S. Armed Forces Radio Service in the Tokyo area, dropped its coverage of Monday Night Football on Tuesday mornings this past season and did not air any of the wildcard playoff games last weekend. It would seem to me the NFL, after providing the rights to AFN to broadcast the games to U.S. Armed Forces personnel overseas, would want to ask Eagle 810 why the station is not taking advantage of the league’s generosity.

In my opinion, the NFL, supposedly seeking to expand its fan base in Japan and all of Asia, took a giant step backwards this season.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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