The owners of Japan’s 12 professional teams on Wednesday voted to approve the merger between the Orix BlueWave and the Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes, setting the stage for the first players’ strike in the history of Japanese baseball.
In a meeting that lasted almost three hours, the owners approved the merger of the two teams, a decision that will leave the Pacific League with five teams instead of six for the 2005 season.
“We hope to hold meetings with the players up until the last minute,” said Yomiuri Giants owner Hakuo Takihana, suggesting there was still time to avert a strike.
The owners also said Wednesday they will maintain the two-league format that has been in place since 1950 and they will hold another meeting on Sept. 29 to discuss the introduction of interleague games for next season.
On Monday, the Japanese players’ association decided at a meeting that if the merger between the Pacific League teams was approved, the players would refuse to play all weekend games between now and the end of September.
It is expected the merger could lead to up to 100 players and team personnel losing their jobs.
The players have said three conditions, including a one-year freeze on the proposed merger, must be met by Friday to avoid a strike.
A strike would come 10 years after one staged by U.S. major league players in 1994 and could affect the playoffs, the Japan Series in October and possibly a major league all-star tour of Japan in November.
It was widely believed the merger between the two teams could lead to other mergers in the Pacific League and the formation of a single 10-team league.
Many owners in the less-profitable Pacific League are said to favor a single league to cash in on the higher revenues generated by playing the Central League’s Yomiuri. The Giants have long been Japan’s most popular team and draw large crowds throughout Japan.
The Buffaloes reportedly have taken losses of $36 million a year due to a drop in attendance and rising player salaries.
A merger is opposed by many fans, and critics argue there are less drastic measures — interleague play and more equitable distribution of TV broadcast rights — to level the playing field.
Barring a last-minute deal, 12 games will be scrapped this weekend.
In July, the president of a Tokyo-based Internet services company offered to purchase the Buffaloes to avert a reduction in teams but was turned down by Kintetsu’s parent company Kintetsu Railway Corp.
In what could be viewed as another concession to the players, the owners also agreed to reconsider the requirements for new teams to enter the two leagues.
The owners decided that they could not put off the merger plans for another season because of the dire financial circumstances of the Buffaloes.
Wednesday’s owners meeting was attended by baseball commissioner Yasuchika Negoro.
Court rejects request
The Tokyo High Court on Wednesday rejected a request by the professional baseball players’ association for recognition of the players’ right of collective bargaining over the merger of the Orix BlueWave and Kintetsu Buffaloes.
The request for collective bargaining with Nippon Professional Baseball, the owners’ body, was filed Aug. 27 along with an application for an injunction against the merger.
On Monday, the high court turned down an appeal against the Tokyo District Court’s rejection last Friday of the injunction request.