Baseball | BASEBALL BULLET-IN

Fans should decide if Japan pro ball has interleague play

by Wayne Graczyk

A couple of interesting articles appeared in The Japan Times during the first week of this month, both mentioning interleague play, and it would appear Japanese baseball may finally be moving toward the scheduling of regular-season games between Central and Pacific League teams.

First, on March 1, there appeared an op-ed piece written by Prof. Emeritus Masaru Ikei of Keio University, translated from the Seiron column of the Sankei Shimbun on Feb. 22, about reviving Japanese baseball.

The good professor offered three ideas for doing just that. His second and third, respectively, were to reform the draft system and to abolish the existing quota for foreign players. His No. 1 proposal was to introduce interleague play.

Then, on March 4, there was an item about Japanese Baseball Commissioner Yasuchika Negoro expressing interest in pursuing the concept of official in-season CL vs. PL clashes. He was quoted as saying, “I’d like to discuss it with the general managers and club owners.”

Both stories pointed out it is the Central League that is opposed to interleague play.

Prof. Ikei wrote, “The (Yomiuri) Giants and (the other five) Central League teams no doubt will object to the proposal. The question is how to convince them to accept it.”

My understanding is the other five CL clubs (the Hanshin Tigers, Chunichi Dragons, Hiroshima Carp, Yokohama BayStars and Yakult Swallows) are against interleague play because they don’t want to lose home games against the Giants, which attract sellout crowds and prime time TV and radio broadcasting rights money.

In the case of the Giants, it is owner Tsuneo Watanabe who, according to what’s been reported in the papers, just does not want to play against the Pacific League teams. But I do not understand what they have to lose.

The Giants would sell out Tokyo Dome whether they’re playing the Tigers, the BayStars, the Seibu Lions or Orix BlueWave of the Pacific division — or the Chofu Little League, for that matter.

As for the other five teams in the Central circuit, their point about losing home games with the Giants is well taken.

However, the solution is not to reduce the number of their home games vs. Yomiuri and give them to the other league. It is simply to add more games to the schedule to facilitate the interleague format.

The CL currently plays a 140-game season; the PL, because of its new playoff format, has a 135-game regular year.

Interleague play could be inaugurated by adding six games to the calendar; one each against the franchises in the other league, with home teams alternating years.

For example, the Giants would host the Lions, Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters and Chiba Lotte Marines in Year A, while visiting the BlueWave, Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes and Fukuoka Daiei Hawks.

In Year B, the Giants would be home against the BlueWave, Buffaloes and Hawks and play away games vs. the Lions, Fighters and Marines.

Some may argue there would be too many games but, even if the CL teams played 146, that would still be 16 fewer than the 162 played by the clubs in the major leagues.

Even with their playoff rounds, I believe the Pa Leaguers could handle a 141-game schedule with six interleague contests.

They start the season so early anyway, and there are four teams with home domes and a minimum of rainouts. Six more games could easily be fit into the season.

In 2001, I interviewed Hideki Matsui, then of the Giants, and threw in the question, “Would you like to play regular games against the Pacific League,” Matsui replied, “If the fans want it, yes, I would like to do that.”

That’s the point. It does not matter what I think, or what Matsui or Prof. Ikei or Mr. Negoro or the owners and general managers of the six Central League teams think.

It is important what the FANS want. They’re the ones who buy the tickets and, without your fans, you have no game.

My suggestion to Commissioner Negoro is this: Sir, when your office prints this year’s all-star ballots, leave some space below the players’ names and use it to include the question, “Would you like to see interleague play?”

Follow it with two of those blank oval indicators, one for YES and one for NO, so the fans can pencil in the response of their choice, as they do to select their favorite players for the all-star teams.

It is my guess that more than 90 percent would vote YES.

If that were the case, the Commissioner would have something to show the Central League people opposed to interleague play, and it could be the answer to Prof. Ikei’s question about how to convince the CL to accept the change.

Japanese baseball has often followed the majors with regard to changes in rules, innovations and facilities.

For example, the American League adopted the designated hitter system in 1973, and Japan’s Pacific League went to the DH in 1975.

The Japan Series games were changed from day to night after the World Series went that way.

Tokyo’s Korakuen Stadium was resurfaced with artificial turf in 1976 after several MLB parks got carpeting, and now games at most of the Japanese stadiums, indoors and out, are played on the new Field Turf-style, man-made grass first put down on the grounds in some major league parks.

Hopefully interleague play, conceived by the American and National Leagues in 1997, will be the next North American concept to be introduced on this side of the Pacific.

Try it for two years; just one game per season against each team in the other league. If it doesn’t prove to be popular, drop it.

But I’ll bet it would give a big boost to a sport desperately in need of some rejuvenation.

Good luck, Mr. Commissioner.