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BASEBALL

Japanese Success Points Up World of Possibilities

April 08, 2001|ROSS NEWHAN

Wearing his sixth uniform since the Dodgers granted his trade request in midseason of 1998, Hideo Nomo's improbable no-hitter on a damp night in Camden Yards, a hitter's haven, was more than a tribute to his resiliency and a temporary respite from the gloom and doom of the Boston Red Sox's spring.

It highlighted an impressive opening week for Japanese players at the major league level-- with outfielders Ichiro Suzuki of the Seattle Mariners and Tsuyoshi Shinjo of the New York Mets becoming the first Japanese position players to play in the big leagues and Seattle closer Kazuhiro Sasaki picking up where he left off as the American League's rookie of the year.

It was also another headline reminder of baseball's expanding globalization-- illustrated by the growing number of foreign players and last Sunday's Puerto Rico opener, following the 1999 and 2000 openers in Mexico and Japan.

Given that baseball is probably at saturation in U.S. markets, aside from another try, perhaps, in Washington, D.C., expansion beyond the U.S. and Canada seems inevitable--although not in the immediate future.

In fact, as a partial solution to the economic and disparity issues, baseball may be headed the other way.

There is growing belief that contraction--the elimination of two teams at the end of this season--is a legitimate possibility.

"We can't continue to share revenue and national TV money with some clubs that aren't producing any revenue on their own," the president of one National League team said. "Shutting down a team or two may represent a blow to the industry's image, but improving our overall health and stability is far more important."

Taking a global view, Commissioner Bud Selig said, "We were very slow over too many years to take advantage of our international popularity and opportunities. Obviously, we have no expansion plans, but we will continue to be very aggressive from a marketing and talent standpoint."

Selig said that the 2002 season, barring a work stoppage, is almost certain to open in a foreign country and that in-season games may be played in as many as three countries, excluding the U.S and Canada.

"It's just a question of where, and we're studying that now," he said.

Nowadays, a player's credentials have to include a work visa and passport. Of the 854 players on opening-day rosters and disabled lists, more than a fourth, 25.3%, were born outside the U.S., up from 23.6% last year.

The Caribbean hotbeds, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Venezuela, continue as the leading exporters, but there are now 10 major leaguers from Cuba and eight from Nomo's Japan.

No one is more familiar with the Japanese invasion than Dodger pitching coach Jim Colborn, whose friendship with Shigetoshi Hasegawa was instrumental in the reliever's decision to leave Japan for the Angel bullpen and who also imported both Sasaki and Suzuki to Seattle as the Mariners' Pacific Rim scouting director.

Colborn pitched and coached in Japan before scouting there. He believes Nomo's success with the Dodgers in the mid-'90s helped change the mind-set of many Japanese players regarding their ability to succeed in the major leagues.

"I think the talent was always there," Colborn said. "But you would ask a Japanese player in the '90s if he was interested in playing in the majors and he would say, 'No, they are too big, too powerful.' They tended to be intimidated. Once they could make the comparison based on the performance of one of their own, many started to envision coming, and I think many more will make the jump. They are in the top 1% for dedication, determination and perseverance. Those are characteristics you can count on."

The global market, of course, has given baseball an expanded and, generally, cheaper talent pool, compared to the June draft, which governs amateur players in the U.S., Puerto Rico and Canada.

In the coming labor negotiations, however, management will ask the players' union to approve a worldwide draft, giving smaller-revenue clubs, in Selig's view, a better shot at the more expensive international players. It's a bargaining chip that the union may be willing to consider.

Meantime, Nomo has taken that perseverance Colborn cited to a new height, becoming only the fourth pitcher to throw a no-hitter in both leagues. Since former Dodger general manager Fred Claire wasted no time responding to his trade demand--unlike the current administration that has simply wiped Gary Sheffield's spittle from its face and warmly asked Sheffield to stay--Nomo has pitched for the Mets, Milwaukee Brewers and Detroit Tigers, plus the triple-A Iowa Cubs and double-A Huntsville (Ala.) Stars.

At 33, he signed a one-year, $4.5-million contract with the Red Sox, was rocked in spring training, but proved in Baltimore that his forkball lives and he may be more than a Band-Aid in a patchwork rotation after Pedro Martinez. The Red Sox, of course, spent $160 million on Manny Ramirez and are looking for any ray of sunshine.

Shortstop Nomar Garciaparra has been lost for half the season at least, Dante Bichette, Trot Nixon and Jose Offerman are grumbling over reduced roles, Carl Everett is a ticking time bomb who seems to miss every other team bus, and Manager Jimy Williams is openly defiant of General Manager Dan Duquette, benching some of Duquette's most expensive signings and playing who he wants.

For long-suffering Red Sox fans, Nomomania is welcome relief from their usual paranoia.

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