Eight years after turning their backs on visiting major league all-star tours, Japan’s players are welcoming the big leaguers back with open arms for games in November.
For the first time since 2006, a team of major league all stars will visit Japan in November for a series of games against the Japan national team in what some see as a reincarnation of what had become a biennial “Nichibeiyakyu” (Japan-America Baseball) series. But for Nippon Professional Baseball and its union, it is something altogether different.
“I don’t like calling it ‘Nichibeiyakyu,’ ” Toru Matsubara, the secretary general of the Japan Professional Baseball Players Association told Kyodo News on Tuesday.
“They are more like Samurai Japan-Major League games.”
In 2012, Japan’s national teams adopted the Samurai Japan name first used for the 2009 World Baseball Classic, and set out to build a national team that would be a world-beater through coordinated youth development and sponsorships. The goal is winning back the WBC championship in 2017.
“We don’t see these games as exhibitions,” said Kenjiro Kato, a national team senior staff member. “We are treating them as meaningful competition. And the players association is, too.”
In 2006, the players association dropped the bomb that it would no longer participate in postseason major-league tours. Takuya Yamazaki, an attorney for the players association, told Kyodo News last month, “The majority of the players felt the series, an exhibition, placed a great burden on players in an environment in which meaningful competitions, including the World Baseball Classic, existed, and that the historic role of the regular All-Series had run its course.”
Jim Small, the president of Major League Baseball Japan, was surprised by the decision but never stopped trying to find a way to bring big leaguers back. He said the idea of games against Samurai Japan surfaced in talks with former NPB commissioner Ryozo Kato.
“The idea came from the Japan side,” Small said. “How do we build our national team property?” The result will be five “meaningful games” from Nov. 12-18 with an additional exhibition in Okinawa.
Former Tampa Bay Rays infielder Akinori Iwamura said the old Nichibei games had boosted his career and expressed sadness that eight years had passed since the last big-league stars came in 2006. He applauded the Samurai Japan initiative, but said just calling games meaningful wouldn’t make them so.
“When you play, you play to win,” said Iwamura, now with the Tokyo Yakult Swallows. “But in November at the end of our long seasons, pitchers are not going to work inside to move batters off the plate, so it’s not exactly like the real thing. Still, you can see how they play, how they throw. You can feel the gap in skill level as everyone tries to show off their game, them as well as us.”
Matsubara, however, said the games are meaningful in the big picture.
“Samurai Japan is about winning the WBC and this is part of that buildup and the players are behind it,” he said. “It’s about growing the game in Japan on all levels. NPB’s 12 teams are not so profitable that they can ignore the monetary benefits of success in the WBC.
“It may be kind of a Japanese thing that players feel pride in their teams’ financial success. The players want to win the next WBC because it will benefit NPB’s teams and put pro baseball on a more secure footing.
“It’s not about individual ambition. So these games, like last November’s national team games in Taiwan, are part of that goal. In that sense, these new games are very meaningful for us.”