Ryozo Kato had the ideas to be the commissioner Japanese baseball needed, but not the muscle.
Early in his tenure, you could hear the sincerity with which he spoke of trying to make NPB better for both fans and players.
It is somewhat ironic then that Kato’s most successful step toward that goal — introducing a standardized ball — helped lead to his undoing.
Make no mistake, Kato’s decision to step down (after the season) in the wake of the controversy surrounding the official baseball is warranted. Once the coverup over alterations made to the ball — apparently spearheaded by NPB secretary general Kunio Shimoda without Kato’s knowledge — came to light, the commissioner’s position was untenable.
The controversy was an embarrassment, especially in a year that saw the 49-year-old single-season home run record fall a short train ride away from the commissioner’s office, but with the man himself nowhere in sight. Perhaps he knew his presence would’ve have cast a pall over the proceedings in light of the controversy.
Even so, Kato’s departure is as much an indictment of the NPB machine as it is of the soon-to-be former commissioner.
Japanese baseball is a sport in transition and sorely in need of transparency and forward thinking among its leaders as it loses some of its best players — and now even a few a tier or two below — to the majors and cedes ground to soccer for the hearts and minds of Japanese youth.
The old, insular, way of thinking isn’t doing the game any favors. That someone — Kato, Shimoda or whomever — felt it was a good idea to keep quiet about altering the ball shows just how much change is needed.
Despite his ideas, there wasn’t much Kato could do change things because his office held little real power. He operated in an environment where progress was more or less at the mercy of 12 teams, mainly two big ones, mostly out for themselves in lieu the greater good.
NPB would do well to give its next leader the power and backing to push back on matters that could benefit the game, even if those things don’t always tip in favor of the big clubs.
What point is there to a commissioner if he has little power to impart change and operates in an environment where his subordinates can push him unknowingly into the fire?
Imagine if one of MLB commissioner Bud Selig’s lieutenants made an alteration to the official ball in secret, then let his boss issue public denials.
How long would that fly before swift and official action was taken?
It would be wholly unlike NPB’s clumsy, plodding response.
Say what you will about Kato’s friend and counterpart, Selig has gotten things done — such as adding the wild card to the playoffs and interleague to the regular season — despite opposition on some fronts and in a much bigger league.
The players have also seemingly lost confidence in the NPB commissioner and it’s hard to blame them.
How can they trust the office when their interests and those of the game are at the whim of a power vacuum at the top?
Because of the sheer amount of talent in Japan, globalization will force itself upon the league as technology makes it easier for fans and media to keep track of players of note, which brings increased attention to other teams and players.
Ten years ago, Kato’s resignation would barely warrant a ripple outside Japan. When he announced his intentions last week, there were international news organizations big and small that ran the news and harkened back to the coverup.
Japan needs to put its best foot forward at a time with so many new eyes on the game — that could also help entice top talent to stick around.
Kato liked to joke that imparting change in Japanese baseball was a process not unlike turning a battleship — slow and arduous.
As he heads for the exit, there is an opportunity for NPB to install someone with the ideas, backbone and support to navigate the rough waters that ultimately swallowed Kato.