A big change in Japanese baseball this year may be seen in the umpires. The former Central and Pacific League men in blue have been fully integrated under the NPB banner, each man now has his own assigned roster and sleeve number and there are crew chiefs for the first time in Japan.

The process to combine the league umpires follows a similar course of action in Major League Baseball and has taken two years to complete. In 2009, the umps in Japan still belonged to the CL or PL, but in 2010 they switched to the NPB logo, though the move went only halfway. The guys kept their numbers, so there were several cases where two umpires were wearing the same numerical designation.

Also last season, Central League games were called only by former CL umpires, and Pacific League contests worked only by ex-Pa Leaguers. In 2011, all umpires will be assigned at random to work Central, Pacific and interleague games. The revamped system is expected to give the Japanese umpires a higher status and, hopefully, more respect.

It may be difficult to gauge the skill level and competency of Japanese umpires as compared to their major league counterparts. While many umpires in Japan have had training in the U.S. at schools such as those run by former American and National League umpires Joe Brinkman, Harry Wendelstedt, Bill Kinnamon and Jim Evans, they have not benefited from the lengthy seasoning and the rigorous grind of working their way up from the lowest minor leagues as have their cousins in North America.

Every manager, regardless of nationality, has an occasional spat with the umpires. Former Hiroshima Carp and Rakuten Eagles field boss Marty Brown had numerous base-throwing and dirt-kicking incidents after arguing calls during his five years managing in Japan, and ex-Chiba Lotte Marines skipper Bobby Valentine and former Nippon Ham Fighters manager Trey Hillman sometimes disagreed with umpiring decisions.

However, all three said the umps in Japan do a pretty good job overall, and they did not think they had more problems than they would have managing a team in the U.S.

The confidence and proficiency of the umpires in Japan seemed to be bumped up a few notches after a series of interaction opportunities with their major league counterparts in the 1990s.

The late Kazuo “Pancho” Ito, then the public relations director for Japan’s Pacific League, invited Evans, one of the top American League umpires at the time, to work in a post-season PL All-Star Game (East vs. West) in Shizuoka in 1991. Evans also held clinics and worked with the Japanese umpires to help improve their techniques.

In 1996-97, there was a Nichibei springtime exchange program whereby four Japanese umpires went to Florida and Arizona, and four American umps traveled to Osaka and Tokyo. Each worked preseason exhibition games in the others’ countries and one of the ’97 visitors from the U.S., Mike DiMuro, stayed behind by agreement and became the only foreign umpire to work regular-season games in Japan.

His tenure as a Central League arbiter was ill-fated and short-lived, however. DiMuro was called home by the American League after being roughed-up by the Chunichi Dragons after a disputed call in a game at Gifu on June 5, and his career in Japan ended after just two months.

So far, there has never been a woman umpire working in Japanese baseball at the professional level, and there are none on the way, so there is no “masked princess” or equivalent to the hopeful female knuckleball pitcher Eri Yoshida. However, American woman umpire Perry Lee Barber worked behind the plate and at second base in Japanese exhibition games in March of 1989.

There are five former umpires in the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame.

The establishment of the crew chiefs in Japan is expected to unify the four umpires working the games-but only to a point. Unlike in the majors, the same four men are not together throughout the season but switch around to work with different partners. In other words, there are no set crews, but four guys will form a crew for each series under one of the 11 chiefs.

Also, there are five umpires on hand for each game in Japan, with one on the sidelines as an alternate who would go on the field in a relief role should one of the others become injured or ill during a game. This is also a different arrangement than in the majors where, when one of the four leaves a game, they continue with only three umpires.

The umpires this year will also be working hard to finalize another change in Japanese baseball; that of reversing the ball-strike count to conform to international standards; that is, calling balls first, then strikes. A full-count will be 3-2 and not 2-3 as in the past in Japan.

They went halfway with this last year as well, but it looks good for this to become the norm by the end of the 2011 season. Most-if not all-the regular stadium scoreboard lamps in Japan have been converted from “SBO” to “BSO,” and a number of radio and TV announcers said they will try their best to make a smooth transition and expect to get used to it as the year moves along.

The Baseball Bullet-In salutes the NPB for the upgrade and its efforts toward making Japanese baseball conform to international standards.

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Contact Wayne Graczyk at: wayne@JapanBall.com

This column is sponsored by Bodyplus Group & Warner Entertainment Japan Inc.

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