Fan power prevails as crisis in Japanese baseball subsides

by Wayne Graczyk

It appears we will come out of the so-called Japanese baseball crisis with the two-league system intact, six teams each in the Central and Pacific circuits, a new team in Sendai and interleague play in 2005.

Not bad, when you consider that, in July, it looked as if we were headed for a one-league, 10-team set-up, as a group of stubborn owners attempted to ram that idea down everybody’s throats.

However, it was the Japan Pro Baseball Players Association that prevailed, boosted by a heavy dose of fan power.

The turning point came, I believe, during the two days when the players went on strike, Sept. 18-19. It was not what the players did not do (play baseball), but what they did, interacting with the fans, that made the difference.

Until then, it seemed the owners were totally ignoring the ‘voice of the fan’ which obviously backed the players throughout the dispute that began June 13 with the announcement the Pacific League Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes and Orix BlueWave had agreed to merge.

The players wisely used the two strike days to stage a variety of events at stadiums and other venues.

There were ‘sign-kai’ autograph sessions, on-field clinics and opportunities for fans to meet their favorite players. Those occurrences and the media coverage they generated served to wake up the owners, I think. When they saw video on TV sports news programs and spectacular photos in the sports newspapers, something must have clicked.

There was that aerial shot of Fukuoka Dome, circled by a double-file line of autograph-seeking Daiei Hawks fans, kids in Nagoya Dome being taught how to bunt and field by Chunichi Dragons players and shot after shot of fans smiling in spite of the fact games had been called off.

Management must have realized what they were up against.

No one sought the autograph of former Yomiuri Giants chairman Tsuneo Watanabe.

No one wanted a photo taken with Seibu Lions chairman Yoshiaki Tsutsumi.

No one looked to Chiba Lotte Marines representative Ryuzo Setoyama as a hero.

Instead, the fans wanted the signature of Hawks — triple crown winner Nobuhiko Matsunaka or to pose with Dragons — third baseman Kazuyoshi Tatsunami.

As pointed out here last column, Yakult Swallows catcher Atsuya Furuta, chairman of the JPBPA, is every fan’s hero.

Mix in the sellout crowds at Sapporo Dome and Chiba Marine Stadium, as the Nippon Ham Fighters and the Marines fought for third place and a playoff spot in the PL, and the 48,000 fans who showed up at Osaka Dome Sept. 24 for the final Kintetsu Buffaloes home game, and the message came through loud and clear: baseball is alive in Japan.

Now it is going to get better.

Send me to Sendai

The owners got their merger OK, but now Internet entities Livedoor and Rakuten will vie for the expansion team in Sendai and sixth Pacific League club.

Judging by media reports, it seems Rakuten has the inside track.

Population-wise Sendai is the best city in Japan to put an expansion ball club. It has more than a million potential baseball fans and is only 1 hour and 40 minutes from Tokyo on the Tokoku Shinkansen bullet train.

The problem is its ballpark, Miyagi Prefectural Stadium, is old, small and in need of repair.

Sendai is no stranger to pro baseball.

The Yomiuri Giants used to play a Tohoku series every other year.

But the last time the Kyojin played a regular season game there was in 1990.

An All-Star game was played at Miyagi Stadium in 1992, and Sendai was one of the stops on post-season barnstorming tours made by the Baltimore Orioles, New York Mets, Cincinnati Reds and other major league teams in the 1960s and ’70s.

The old Lotte Orions made frequent visits to Sendai after losing their home ground, Tokyo Stadium, following the 1972 season.

From 1973 through 1977, the Orions were known as a ‘gypsy’ team because they were homeless.

In 1978, when Yokohama Stadium was opened, the Taiyo Whales moved from Kawasaki to Yokohama, and the Orions established a home base at Kawasaki until they moved to Chiba in 1992 and became the Marines.

During the five ‘gypsy’ seasons, however, the Orions played home games at Kawasaki as well as Korakuen and Jingu Stadiums in Tokyo, Kusanagi Stadium in Shizuoka and Nishikyogoku Stadium in Kyoto, but nearly half the Orions’ home schedule was played in Miyagi.

To be fair, Miyagi Stadium looks better in recent TV footage than it did the last time I was there, for that 1992 All-Star contest.

The stands behind home plate have been renovated, but there are cracks and chips in the cramped, bench-type seats down the first- and third-base lines. There are no bleachers, so the cheering sections in left and right would do their flag-waving, trumpet-blowing and megaphone-shouting on the grass beyond the fences.

Whoever is awarded the Sendai franchise is expected, together with the city fathers, to pump some money into improving the yard which has a skin infield, natural grass outfield and a scoreboard with electric lights for the inning-by-inning line score, but old-fashioned panels with the players’ names painted on them, to display the lineups.

Miyagi Stadium seats 25,000, and its home run fences down the lines in left and right field are 91.4 meters (just 300 ft.) from home plate and 121.9 meters (400 ft.) to straightaway center. The power alleys measure 114.3 meters (375 ft.).

Hopefully, the novelty of having their own team will inspire Sendaians to flock to the games and, by the time that novelty wears off, a winning team and a new stadium can be built.

No dome, please; just a nice asymmetrical outdoor facility such as Jacobs Field in Cleveland, Safeco Field in Seattle or Coors Field in Denver.