Reversal by owners likely to keep two-league system in place

by Wayne Graczyk

Two weeks ago, it appeared Japanese pro baseball was surely headed for a 10-team, one-league restructuring for next season.

The 12 team owners came out of a July 7 meeting, chaired by Tsuneo Watanabe of the Yomiuri Giants, determined to approve a merger between the Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes and Orix BlueWave, disregarding the feelings of players and fans.

Seibu Lions owner Yoshiaki Tsutsumi said two of the remaining four Pacific League clubs should also get together, effectively ending the existence of the PL.

The situation appeared bleak, leading a league official to comment, “I don’t know what will happen, but for sure it will be bad news.”

Another said he was “99 percent sure there will be one league and 10 teams” in 2005.

Then came the July 9-15 All-Star break, during which a series of events dramatically turned things around.

The Japan Pro Baseball Players Union, led by Yakult Swallows catcher Atsuya Furuta, met to unify, and Furuta brought up the possibility of a strike at some time in the future, if the owners refuse to talk with the players.

Fans, many wearing the logos of the Buffaloes and BlueWave, assembled near Nagoya Dome and Nagano Olympic Stadium, sites of the Sanyo All-Star Games, to collect signatures of those attending the games, with the intention of presenting petitions opposing the Kintetsu-Orix merger to baseball officials.

Interestingly, the Pa League won both All-Star games, and Japan’s sports papers played up the strength of the league with headlines such as “Powerful Pacific.”

Popular player Tsuyoshi Shinjo was named MVP of the Nagano game, and the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters outfielder took the opportunity to conclude his post-game hero interview by declaring, “Kore kara wa, Pa League (Long live the Pacific League).”

A presenter on TV Tokyo’s sports news recap that evening said, “To be a meaningful All-Star game, it’s got to be one between the two leagues. It would not be the same if there were only one league.”

The Nikkan Sports newspaper reported Sanyo Electronics, sponsor of the All-Star games, has indicated the company would not be interested in continuing support unless the series remained a Central vs. Pacific matchup.

Meanwhile, former Hanshin Tigers manager Senichi Hoshino, now a senior adviser to the club, appears to have played a big part in starting momentum going in the opposite direction, causing some owners to abandon the movement toward one league and look toward keeping the two-league format.

After Hoshino blasted team owners for ignoring the voices of the players and fans, Tigers team president Katsuyoshi Nozaki suddenly declared he was in favor of keeping the Central and Pacific League set-up.

He was soon joined by owners of the Yakult Swallows, Yokohama BayStars, Hiroshima Carp and Chunichi Dragons, and Nozaki even said he now favors interleague play, something the Central League owners have opposed for years,because it would mean losing games against the Yomiuri Giants and lucrative TV money.

With five teams now supposedly unwilling to vote for the one-league, 10-team idea, and the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks also said to be on the fence, the three-quarters (nine votes) necessary to make the change clearly are not there.

As of this writing, the most likely result would be a six-team Central League and a five-team Pacific League next season.

But one sportswriter said he still hopes there will be two six-team leagues, and the players should be tough.

“The players association could stop (the merger and restructuring to one league), but the players must be strong and united. They cannot do it chu to hanpa (halfway),” he insisted.

One fan suggested, if the Kintetsu-Orix merger is a sure thing and the owners would “lose face” if it were “undone,” a solution might be to see the merger through to the Orix Buffaloes, then create an expansion team to be acquired by Livedoor (the company that wants to purchase the Kintetsu franchise) or another buyer, thus retaining a six-team Pacific League.

However, if the merged Kintetsu-Orix club splits its home games between Kobe’s Yahoo BB Stadium and Osaka Dome, where would you put an expansion team?

The city of Sendai might be able to support a pro ball team, but its Miyagi Prefecture Stadium is old and small.

Japan’s “field of dreams” ballparks such as the Nagano Olympic facility, Muscat Stadium in Kurashiki (Okayama Prefecture) and Botchan Stadium in Matsuyama (Shikoku) are first-class, but located in smaller cities whose population may or may not be able to support a team full-time.

One possibility could be to put a team in the Hokuriku district, based in city of Toyama along the Japan Sea, where the majority of home games could be played at Alpen Stadium, a superb 10-year-old, 30,000-seat structure.

Some home games could also be played in nearby Fukui and Kanazawa, with a series or two at Tokyo Dome, where Pa League games have drawn extremely well this season after the Fighters moved to Sapporo.

A game between the Hawks and Buffaloes at Tokyo Dome drew a sellout crowd of 52,000 on June 15, and the Fighters and BlueWave played before respective announced audiences of 40,000 and 46,000 on June 26 and 27.

They haven’t had that many people at a PL game in the Big Egg since 1950s rock and roller Jimmy Angel provided the pre-game entertainment.

(Note: The Fighters and BlueWave will play at Tokyo Dome July 23 at 6 p.m. and July 24 and 25 at 1 p.m.)

At any rate, the tug-of-war continues, and next comes a July 23 meeting in Tokyo among Hanshin, Yakult and Yokohama representatives, expected to reinforce the movement toward keeping the two-league identity.