WBC, Nichibei on collision course?


Cannibalism, baby. It’s all the rage in baseball this year.

Stephen Ellsesser

The Japanese players union wants to say sayonara to Nichibei Yakyu, preferring to have its fill of the international baseball season every few years in the World Baseball Classic.

If they get their way, Bud Selig’s latest project will have devoured a longstanding partnership between two baseball powers.

“The WBC was a success, and in the future, we want games to be meaningful (like the WBC),” Tokyo Yakult Swallows infielder and union leader Shinya Miyamoto said earlier this year. “We do not like to play games that have no meaning.”

Miyamoto may be going a bit far in saying the Nichibei games lack meaning, but he does raise an interesting issue: Does the competition between MLB and Nippon Professional Baseball still have a place, especially with the WBC’s success?

The WBC was a brilliant idea, and once it irons out a few quirks, it will be even better.

But ask Major League Baseball, and it will tell you that Bud Selig’s latest project is no alternative to the All-Star series, which takes place every other season.

“We know why the Japanese players union had concerns,” MLB Japan Managing Director Jim Small said. “They feel the WBC supersedes the Alll-Star series, and I can tell you we disagree. I think Japanese fans are still interested in seeing this kind of series, and because one is country vs. country and the other is MLB against NPB, they are completely different.”

Completely different, maybe. Mutually exclusive, in theory. But there is overlap, and MLB has stumped that heavily ahead of the event.

Recovering a little bit of face has been a part of the rhetoric for many players and others around the event. “We have some of MLB’s best, and we are playing to win, especially after Japan won the WBC,” being a paraphrase clipped right from the official handbook for all involved.

The whole idea seems like a case of trying to have your cake and eat it too, but there’s no way to avoid some connection. If nothing else, the smack talk factor necessitates a link.

But that kind of motivation only goes so far, and maybe the Japanese players are exercising a bit of symbolic speech in place of good-natured jibes.

Take a look at the Japanese roster — Michihiro Ogasawara and Takahiro Arai aside, it is devoid of the top-shelf talent that made Team Japan a special and formidable commodity in the WBC.

Akinori Iwamura, Kazumi Saito, Daisuke Matsuzaka — all have had good reasons for pulling out of Nichibei, but underneath it all, maybe it is a statement: If Japan is going to play both the WBC and Nichibei, it will make no secret of which tournament is to have priority between the two.

But nothing that premeditated could come to play. At the very least, it will be interesting to see the residual effects of this baseball cannibalism in two years, when Nichibei is due for a renewal in 2008. The next WBC would follow in March 2009.

It should be an interesting couple years.