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NPB’s quirky, difficult interleague season a work in progress

by Wayne Graczyk

The 2007 Nippon Professional Baseball interleague season wraps up this weekend, except for a few previously rained out games that will be made up on Monday and Tuesday. Then the regular Central and Pacific League schedules resume on Friday and continue through the remainder of the season.

The Chiba Lotte Marines and Yokohama BayStars will play a make-up game at Chiba Marine Stadium on the 25th, and there are two makeup contests to be played on Tuesday. The Yomiuri Giants will travel to Sendai to face the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles to make up a game rained out on May 25, and the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters face the BayStars in Yokohama.

This year, the number of “koryu-sen,” or interleague games, was reduced by 33 percent, from 36 per team to 24, requiring the scheduling of two-game series instead of the usual three-game sets.

I asked a few of the foreigners in Japanese baseball what they thought of the new format. Here are some of their responses.

Fighters manager Trey Hillman said it was OK, except for the makeup part. Nippon Ham plays the Hanshin Tigers at Koshien Stadium in the interleague finale (according to the original schedule) on Sunday, then the Fighters have to travel to Yokohama for one game before turning around and going back to Kansai to play the Orix Buffaloes at Osaka Dome from June 29 to July 1.

Hillman said he wishes the rainouts could be made up as doubleheaders, as they are in the major leagues, but the Japan Pro Baseball Players Union is strictly opposed to playing two games in one day. A twinbill has not been played here since the Yokohama BayStars and Chunichi Dragons did it on Oct. 10, 1998, at Yokohama Stadium.

The Fighters and BayStars were actually postponed twice. Their May 30 game at Sagamihara was rained out, and the May 31 contest at Yokohama was started but called a “no game” when rain forced the action to be stopped prior to the fifth inning.

One of those games was played at Yokohama on June 1, a built-in makeup day, and had they played a twinight doubleheader beginning at 3 or 4 p.m., the upcoming trip would not be necessary. Hillman pointed out how much time and money is being wasted on next week’s trip, when the teams could have played two while the Fighters were in the Port City before, but nooooooooooo.

Rakuten outfielder Rick Short said, “I think it would be better if the interleague games were split up and not played all in one stretch.”

In the majors, there are two periods where the American and National League teams mix it up with each other, with a stretch of regular intraleague games in between.

Even with the shortened koryu-sen season this year, a lot of players have forgotten the teams in their own league whom they have not seen since May 20.

Orix manager Terry Collins said he thought the Pacific League clubs were at a huge disadvantage when playing in the Central League stadiums where the designated hitter rule is not used. He was also frustrated by the fact the CL managers often refused to name their starting pitcher beforehand. Prior to all regular-season Pa League games, the starters are announced by agreement.

When the Buffaloes visited Tokyo Dome for a game against the Yomiuri Giants on May 27, Collins let everyone know he was putting right-hander Yuuki Tanaka on the mound, but Giants skipper Tatsunori Hara would not name his starting hurler, leaving Collins to guess whether he should prepare his batting order for facing a righty or a left-hander.

Collins reluctantly used a tactic he learned from Hiroshima Carp field boss Marty Brown; the insertion of a “teisatsu member,” whereby the name of a pitcher who is on the bench but will not be used on a given night is penciled into the starting order as a position player.

Then, after the lineup cards are exchanged, the opposing pitcher is revealed and the game begins, the teisatsu guy is replaced by the appropriate right- or left-handed batter to get the best possible advantage against the other team’s hurler. Got that?

Chiba Lotte Marines manager Bobby Valentine also indicated he did not mind playing these two-game series, but “it takes away the rubber game,” he said, in the case where each team wins one of the two games.

You either sweep the series, you get swept, or you split — unless there is a tie, and there were four of those in inter-league games played through June 22.

For the teams and the media alike and, most likely the fans as well, it was sometimes difficult to keep track of what day it was. An oddity of the interleague schedule with the two-game series was playing one team on Saturday, then traveling to play a different opponent on Sunday.

There were games slated on every other Monday, normally an off-day, and there was no baseball played every other Friday. Double no-game days were designated June 21-22.

On the other hand, it was easy to tell where the teams were playing because, when one Central League club was playing at home, they were all at home, and vice versa for the Pacific League.

The schedule-makers in both league offices are to be commended for coming up with the arrangement, as planning the interleague season with a 24-game format seemed like a nightmare last fall.

Contact Wayne Graczyk at wayne@JapanBall.com.