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The Pacific League has lost 10-year veteran Seibu Lions all-star Kazuo Matsui, one of its best performers, to the major leagues and the New York Mets. Tuffy Rhodes, having been released by the Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes, will probably be gone as well, moving to the Yomiuri Giants or another Central League club. At first glance, you may be wondering how the Pa League can cope without two such high-profile players.

Look again.

Superstar second baseman Tadahito Iguchi remains in the fold with the champion Fukuoka Daiei Hawks who also have a quartet of very young and very talented pitchers: Nagisa Arakaki, Hayato Terahara, Tsuyoshi Wada and Japan Series MVP Toshiya Sugiuchi, plus that awesome buzzsaw batting attack.

Seibu still has perhaps the best pitcher in Japan: right-handed flame-thrower Daisuke Matsuzaka, and the Lions have inked power first baseman Alex Cabrera to a new contract and, hopefully, another 50-homer season. Tsutomu Ito takes over as the Leos’ manager for a fresh start in the post-Matsui era.

I like what Tsuyoshi Shinjo said last week when he joined the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters and showed off his brand new Fighters No. 1 jersey. The former all-star in Japan with the Hanshin Tigers and ex-New York Mets and San Francisco Giants outfielder is back after three years in the majors and an appearance in the World Series.

Shinjo told the press, “I’m finished with the majors, but I’m not coming back to the Central League. I’m in the Pacific League now. Hooray for the Pa League.”

This attitude, on which I touched briefly last column, seems to be gaining momentum as the Pacific circuit enters what promises to be one of its most pivotal seasons since its founding in 1950. Rather than a predictable ho-hum year with the Buffaloes, Lions and Hawks (again) finishing in the top three, and the Fighters, Chiba Lotte Marines and Orix BlueWave filling the “B Class” second division, we might see a topsy-turvy order of standings come October.

The Nippon Ham franchise will get a PR shot in the arm with its move to Sapporo, the addition of “Hokkaido” to the team identity, the spiffy new uniforms and an instant fan favorite in Shinjo. Also, American manager Trey Hillman has that first year of indoctrination under his belt and will know a lot more about his players and how to use them.

Bobby Valentine is back as the Lotte manager and, if you think that alone won’t boost attendance at Chiba Marine Stadium, you just watch. The Marines fans, led by a most enthusiastic oendan (cheering section) are so hungry for a first division finish, they may just root the team (with Valentine’s managing) to its first pennant since 1974. That’s the year Richard Nixon resigned the U.S. presidency! Lotte also has slugger Benny Agbayani, and former Mets righty pitcher Satoru Komiyama is coming back to the team for which he starred from 1990 to 1999. The club also seems to be trying hard to acquire Korean star Lee Seung Yeop who hit 56 homers for the Samsung Lions in his native country in 2003. The Marines could be in 2004 what the Hanshin Tigers were this year.

Kintetsu will find it tough replacing Tuffy, and Osaka appears to be headed south in the standings, unless the Buffaloes can get great production from new foreign players and rookies.

The BlueWave picked up free agent outfielder Akihito Muramatsu from Daiei, and Haruki Ihara who led Seibu to the 2002 Pacific League pennant, takes over as manager of the Kobe-based team which resided in last place the past two years.

Despite another year in the basement, Orix led the league in increased attendance in 2003, registering a 16 percent pick-up over 2002. In fact, only the Lions who fell from first to second place, saw a decrease in paying customers with a slight 1.1 percent drop-off. Overall, this past season’s PL attendance was up 4.5 percent, as the six teams drew a total of 10,144,000 fans. What could be best of all in 2004, though, is the introduction of post-season play in the form of a playoff involving the top three teams following the conclusion of the 135-game regular schedule.

Though widely ridiculed and criticized, even here in the “Bullet-in,” the anticipated playoff series to begin Oct. 1 could provide some exciting games in mid-to-late September, leading up to the climactic Japan Series qualifier, depending on who does what and how balanced the league is.

On the other hand, we could see a team, with a below-.500 record during the regular season, represent the Pacific League in the 2004 Japan Series, and that could be good or bad, depending on the team and circumstances at playoff time.

The official PL Championship season begins on Saturday, March 27, with Lotte at Seibu, Nippon Ham at Kintetsu and Orix at Daiei. The league will play its next series outside the Kanto area March 29-31, with Kintetsu-Lotte at Osaka, Orix-Nippon Ham at Kobe and Daiei-Seibu at Fukuoka, while the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Devil Rays open the American League season at Tokyo Dome.

That series, of course, pending approval by the Yankees, Devil Rays and the Major League Baseball Players Association which is expected momentarily.

Three predictions: 1) The 2004 Pacific League pennant will be won by Lotte, Nippon Ham or Orix. 2) Cabrera, Lee or another Pa League fence buster will hit 56 or more home runs next season. 3) PL 2004 attendance will top 12 million.

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