Baseball / MLB

Rakuten awarded pro baseball team

The Associated Press

Rakuten was one of two Japanese Internet companies applying to enter Japanese professional baseball next season after the merger of the Orix BlueWave and the Kintetsu Buffaloes led to a reduction in the number of teams in the Pacific League from six to five.

News photoRakuten president Hiroshi Mikitani (left) and new team manager Yasushi Tao attend a news conference at a Tokyo hotel on Tuesday after the Internet shopping mall won the right to form a new Pacific League team.

It will be the first entry of a new team, excluding cases of mergers or acquisitions, since the creation of the now-defunct Takahashi Unions in the Pacific League in 1954.

“I’m delighted with today’s decision,” said Rakuten team general manager Marty Kuehnert. “We’ll make every effort to put together the best possible team.”

Representatives of 12 Japanese ball clubs, including the BlueWave and the Buffaloes, approved Rakuten after looking into a report submitted last Friday by a screening panel set up by Japan professional baseball.

Rakuten was considered the favorite over rival Internet services company Livedoor. Rakuten president Hiroshi Mikitani has connections in established Japanese business circles and operates J. League team Vissel Kobe through a separate company.

The merger of the BlueWave and the Buffaloes occurred because both teams were losing money due to lagging attendance and rising player salaries.

After the merger was approved by the owners, Japan’s professional players staged a two-day strike in September, the first in the history of the sport here.

The players vowed to stage no further work stoppages when management agreed to allow a new team to enter the professional league for the 2005 season.

The Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles will play in the Pacific League and will be based in Sendai.

Kuehnert, the first American general manager in Japanese professional baseball, said the team will select 40 players from a dispersal draft of players not protected by the BlueWave and Buffaloes when they merge.

“We have a great organization in place,” added Kuehnert. “We’ll have a team by the end of this year. After the dispersal draft, we’ll look to the Nov. 17 amateur draft and then to free agents and foreign players.”

The team is expected to play most of its games at Miyagi Prefectural Stadium in Sendai.

Mikitani and Kuehnert are expected to bring new life to Japan’s tradition-bound baseball world, which has suffered from lagging popularity in recent years.

The team will also benefit from the introduction of interleague play for the 2005 season. For the first time in the history of the two-league system, Pacific League teams will be able to take advantage of the overwhelming popularity of the Central League’s Yomiuri Giants.

Rakuten has tapped baseball commentator Yasushi Tao as manager of its team. Tao had stints with the Chunichi Dragons, Seibu Lions and Hanshin Tigers in his playing career.