Baseball / MLB

JAPAN BASEBALL

Kuehnert to head Rakuten team

by Jim Armstrong

The Associated Press

Internet services company Rakuten on Tuesday introduced American Marty Kuehnert as the general manager of the company’s new professional baseball club.

News photoAmerican Marty Kuehnert has been hired as general manager of the new Rakuten baseball team,
the Internet services company announced in Tokyo. Rakuten has applied to join Nippon Pro Baseball as the organization’s 12th team and play in Sendai starting next season.

Tokyo-based Rakuten, which also owns the J. League’s Vissel Kobe, is one of two Japanese Internet services companies bidding to enter Japanese professional baseball next season, but is widely considered to have the inside track over opponent Livedoor.

Kuehnert signed a three-year contract with Rakuten.

“The Japanese baseball world is at a turning point. I’m looking forward to playing my part in the new changes,” Kuehnert said at a news conference at a Tokyo hotel. “I promise to make things exciting.”

A longtime resident of Tokyo, the 58-year-old Kuehnert has a wealth of experience in Japanese baseball.

A native of Los Angeles, Kuehnert has lived in Japan since 1968. In 1972, he became the general manager of the Japanese-owned Lodi Orions in the California League.

In 1973, he returned to Japan to work as director of sales and promotions of the Taiheiyo Club Lions, the forerunners of the Pacific League’s Seibu Lions.

In 1990, he took a post as president and minority owner of the Double-A Birmingham Barons, a farm team of the Chicago White Sox.

In addition to running a sports management and consulting company, Kuehnert has also worked as a sports commentator and regular columnist for The Japan Times.

Over the years, he has been the Japan representative of former major league players such as Don Buford and Frank Howard.

If Rakuten is granted a team for the 2005 season, Kuehnert, who speaks fluent Japanese, would become the first American general manager of a team in Japan’s professional leagues.

Rakuten became a candidate for a new team in the wake of this summer’s merger crises that saw the Kintetsu Buffaloes merged with the Orix BlueWave for the 2005 season.

The merger of the two PL teams resulted in the first players’ strike in the 70-history of Japanese baseball.

Players walked out for two days on Sept. 11-12 when a total of 12 games were wiped out.

After a series of intense negotiations with management, players and representatives of Japan’s pro teams averted a second strike the following weekend.

As part of their agreement, it was decided a new team would be allowed to enter Japanese professional baseball next season in order to restore the PL to six teams and avoid a further loss of jobs.

The introduction of interleague play for the 2005 season between the Central and Pacific Leagues was also part of the agreement.

With spring training less than five months away, Kuehnert will be under intense pressure to put together a team but says he’s up to the challenge.

“Things can be done amazingly fast if people are willing to work overtime,” said Kuehnert. “We may have to be prepared for 100 losses but we’ll have a great ballpark that will be more fun than any other ballpark in Japan.”

Both Rakuten and Livedoor have put in proposals to play out of Miyagi Stadium in Sendai.

Japanese baseball officials are expected to select either Rakuten or Livedoor at a meeting on Nov. 2.