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Furuta: Players ready to strike if merger happens

by Jim Armstrong

The head of the Japanese baseball players’ association said Thursday his organization will do everything possible to block the proposed merger of two Pacific League teams.

News photoAtsuya furuta, chairman of Japan’s professional baseball players’ association and starting
catcher for the Yakult Swallows, speaks at the meeting of Foreign Correspondents’ Club of
Japan on Thursday in Tokyo.

Ever since officials of the Kintetsu Buffaloes and the Orix BlueWave announced plans to merge the two teams for the 2005 season, Yakult Swallows catcher Atsuya Furuta has been on a crusade to protect the rights of Japan’s 752 professional players.

“Our association has matured to the point where we can say something is bad,” Furuta told reporters at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan. “This is the most important time in our 70-year history and Japanese baseball is at a crossroads.”

Since the merger was announced in June, Japan’s players have enlisted the support of the Fair Trade Commission, have submitted a court injunction to block the proposed merger and have even consulted with the Major League Baseball Players’ Association on how to proceed.

On Monday, the association will decide on what may be their last resort — a strike.

“We will go over all likely scenarios and decide what to do,” said Furuta. “We don’t know what will happen at the next owner’s meeting. Until they reach a conclusion we can’t respond.”

Japanese baseball owners will meet on Sept. 8 when they are expected to approve the merger of the BlueWave and Buffaloes. If that happens, Japanese baseball could be faced with it’s first work stoppage.

Major league players went on strike in 1994 but Furuta sees few similarities.

“Our situation is different in that we have support of the fans,” said Furuta. “If we don’t take a stand our fans will be very disappointed.”

Furuta points out that close to one million fans have already signed petitions against the merger, which could lead to the end of the current two-league system.

The Buffaloes have reportedly suffered losses of $36 million a year recently due to a drop in attendance and rising player salaries.

Parent company Kintetsu Railway Corp. says the merger is its only option and has already signed a formal contract with Orix agreeing on the terms of the amalgamation.

If the merger takes place, up to 100 players and team personnel could lose their jobs.

“They’ve reported those losses, but we don’t know if that’s true,” said Furuta. “High player salaries are a factor, but certainly not the only one. We realize we will have to feel some pain and accept that.”

Furuta said the players’ association has made several suggestions — including the relaxing of rules on how much salaries can be reduced, and the proposal of a luxury tax which would eventually result in reductions of player salaries.

Many owners in the less profitable Pacific League are said to favor a one-league system in order to cash in on the overwhelming popularity of the Central League’s Yomiuri Giants but Furuta said there are other, less drastic ways to cut the pie.

Furuta said his organization has also proposed interleague play and the more equitable distribution of television broadcast rights.

“Two leagues are more advantageous,” said Furuta. “With two leagues you can have an All-Star game and a Japan Series. With one league there would be too many teams that would be eliminated from the pennant races.”

Adding to the confusion is the fact that the president of a Tokyo-based Internet services company has offered to step in and buy the Buffaloes or form a new team in order to preserve the six-team Pacific League.

Livedoor owner Takafumie Horie is convinced he can turn things around and make a profit but so far has been rebuffed by the owners.

“I really don’t know why they rejected his offer,” said Furuta. “One or two owners decided he wasn’t appropriate to own a team. We need some new blood in Japanese baseball and the requirements for ownership need to be made clear.”

On Wednesday, a senior official at the Fair Trade Commission said the Nippon Professional Baseball organization should offer clear explanations for rejecting Horie’s bid.

To Furuta, the situation is the result of how companies approach professional sports teams in Japan.

“In Japan, sports teams are considered the property of companies,” added Furuta. “We realize there are economic considerations, but feel that teams also have public and cultural aspects and shouldn’t just be run by companies.”