You may be reading this column between 7 a.m and 8 a.m. on Sunday morning.
At that time, I am at home, making breakfast, while listening with a transistor radio earphone in my ear, to the Nippon Hoso station and Japanese on-air personality Iruka as she takes requests from the audience and plays pop songs from decades gone by.
Exactly one year ago, on Sunday, June 13, I was doing the same thing; cooking up some eggs, sausages and hash browns, popping slices of bread in the toaster, pouring juice and coffee, when the shocking announcement was made.
Iruka had taken a break from the music, as a newscaster read the headlines of the day.
“In Japanese pro baseball, two Pacific League teams have announced plans to merge. The Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes and Orix BlueWave will become one franchise . . .,” he said, indicating we were headed for a period of chaos and confusion that might have led to a one-league, 10-team format.
I never did understand why that bad news broke so early on an otherwise calm and peaceful Sunday morning, but now it is 365 days later and, this weekend, the Central League Hiroshima Carp are playing a Pacific League team called the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles at a ball park named Fullcast Stadium Miyagi in the city of Sendai.
Five more interleague games are scheduled to be played, including one between the merged Orix Buffaloes at the Yokohama BayStars.
Who could have predicted this in June of 2004?
Listening to Iruka spin another oldie as I smear some chunky peanut butter on an English muffin and sip some pink grapefruit drink, I think about all that has happened over the past 12 months and how many people need to be acknowledged for their sacrifices and contributions toward saving Japanese baseball’s two-league, 12-team system.
Thanks first of all to Livedoor Co. President Takafumi Horie for raising his hand and offering to buy the Buffaloes franchise late last June, and for instilling the thought in everyone’s mind that a merger was not necessarily inevitable and the talk of the amalgamation was premature at the very least.
Domo arigato to the dedicated volunteer fans who donned Kintetsu and Orix caps, jerseys and happi coats and stood near stadium entrances and train stations adjacent to the nation’s ballparks all last summer, collecting signatures on petitions from other fans who opposed the gappei (merger) idea and wanted to maintain the two-league, 12-team format.
Appreciation to the Japan Pro Baseball Players Union for joining with the fans in opposing the contraction of teams, for eventually going on strike for two days in September to prove to the owners they were not doing the right thing in seeking further combining of teams, and for not backing down until a compromise agreement was reached to allow the Kintetsu-Orix merger to go through but to replace the lost team with an expansion club.
Credit Hiroshi Mikitani, the chairman of Rakuten, for also getting into the picture and competing with Horie and Livedoor for the new Sendai franchise, and for later shelling out his money, once he got the team, to gain entrance to the Pacific League and refurbish the decaying stadium in Miyagi.
For lending their names and being ready to hit the ground running, thanks to Tom O’Malley, and Katsunori Kojima, who would have been manager and general manager, respectively, of the Livedoor Phoenix, if that firm, instead of Rakuten, had been granted the expansion entry.
A “Hang in there” to Marty Kuehnert, the Rakuten Eagles’ first G.M. who worked hard to establish the new club’s identity and fan base, and to manager Yasushi Tao and all the players, coaches and staff members of the Eagles who have done their best to achieve respectability during the fledgling franchise’s inaugural season.
Congratulations to the fans and citizens of Sendai and the entire Tohoku region who are proving that, if you build it, they will come, and a tip of the maroon Eagles cap with the gold insignia to the construction workers who labored all winter to get Fullcast Stadium ready for this season’s Rakuten home opener.
Kudos to Masayoshi Son, the SoftBank owner who bought the Fukuoka Hawks from struggling retailer Daiei and has maintained the high standards, on and off the field, of that pennant-contending Pacific League team.
A thumbs up to the Central and Pacific League schedule makers and the Japan Pro Baseball Commissioner’s Office for coming up with an interesting and exciting koryu-sen (interleague play) format which will end, for this year, in a few days but which has symbolized the “new” Japanese baseball.
Finally, thanks most of all to Yakult Swallows catcher Atsuya Furuta who led the players association in that strike last autumn, and for not quitting until he got the owners to stop looking for teams to merge and instead agree to accepting the idea of the expansion team.
Furuta is the one person most responsible for bringing home the bacon and saving the jobs of many players and team personnel.
Now, while Iruka plays another nostalgic tune, someone please refill my coffee mug and pass me another bagel.
Whereas, 12 months ago the Kintetsu-Orix merger announcement served to scramble the organization of Japanese baseball, today the future of pro ball here appears more like sunny side-up.
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