Japanese baseball umpires, who had threatened a walkout to coincide with the season openers this Friday, have averted a strike, officials of their union said Monday.

In a third round of talks at the commissioner’s office, officials of the umpires union came to an official agreement with the Central and Pacific leagues on instituting a subcommittee that will oversee negotiations for a new pay agreement.

“We didn’t want to betray the fans who were looking forward to the season openers,” said union official Atsushi Kittaka. “We will continue talks to resolve these matters.”

The subcommittee overseeing labor talks, which will consist of labor executives, both leagues secretary generals and accounting officers, will meet monthly to discuss wage-hikes and the improvement of working conditions for umpires.

Labor chief Natsuo Yamazaki added a caveat, saying, “If the function of the subcommittee is inadequate, it’s still possible we could go on strike during the season.”

On March 5, the professional baseball workers union for umpires said it was considering a walkout following an impasse in negotiations over wages.

While the union workers say their services are being underrated, the leagues have argued that present umpire wages are fair and they are unable to boost them due to financial constraints.

“I’m very happy,” said Central League secretary general Hideo Okoshi. “Even if we have established a subcommittee there are still many ambiguities between the two parties. I want to face this problem head on.”

According to the union, it is the first time that umpires have called for a strike in both leagues.

“Averting the strike is good for the fans,” said PL secretary general Shigeru Murata. “If we have a large wage hike it would damage pro baseball. We have a lot of homework but for now we’ve come to an understanding.”

Marines recruit Expo

NAGOYA (Kyodo) The Chiba Lotte Marines have signed former Montreal Expos infielder Jose Fernandez as a replacement for Bobby Rose, who pulled out of a deal to play for the Pacific League club last month, officials said Monday.

Fernandez, who hit .281 with 45 home runs and 107 RBIs with the SK Wyverns in the South Korean pro baseball league in 2002, has agreed to a one-year contract and will arrive in Japan in mid-April.

The 28-year-old from the Dominican Republic played two seasons for the Montreal Expos from 1993 to 1994.

Rose, a former Yokohama BayStars second baseman, reneged on a one-year, 80 million yen deal on Feb. 19, citing problems readjusting to Japan.

Lotte catches up

CHIBA (Kyodo) Derrick May hit a two-run homer in the ninth inning as the Chiba Lotte Marines rallied to tie the Yomiuri Giants 4-4 on Monday in the final game of the preseason schedule.

Rookie Yuya Kubo allowed one run and scattered four hits in three innings and Takayuki Shimizu went 2-for-3 for the Giants at Chiba Marine Stadium.

Yomiuri reliever Hiroki Sanada threw two perfect innings as the Japan Series champion finished its preseason in fourth place with a 10-8 record and two ties.

Shimizu drove in a run and finished second in batting with a .424 average behind Chunichi Dragons outfielder Kosuke Fukudome (.442).

The Marines ended the preseason with a 6-6 record and two ties.

The regular season kicks off Friday with a total of six games slated to be played.

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