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Taking Their Hits

Japanese baseball is struggling because of a long recession and the loss of star players to U.S. Two teams may merge.

June 20, 2004|Bruce Wallace | Times Staff Writer

TOKYO — Killing off a Major League Baseball team has proved so difficult that even the rickety house of twigs known as the Montreal Expos has been able to withstand Commissioner Bud Selig's huffing and puffing about contraction.

So if Selig wants to see contraction in action, he may have to gaze across the Pacific Ocean to Japan, where the first cracks emerged last week in the country's financially troubled 12-team, two-league structure. Owners of the Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes and the Orix Blue Wave have begun merger talks that would shrink the Pacific League from six to five teams by next season, leaving an odd number of clubs and a hard-to-resolve scheduling problem.

Japan's Pacific and Central Leagues have no interleague play. The move might therefore spell the end of Japan's two-league system, and a probable further reduction of teams to at least 10 and possibly as few as eight survivors, baseball observers here say.

If approved at an owners' meeting July 7, the merger would mark the biggest organizational shakeup in Japanese baseball since 1957, the last time two teams were folded into one. Baseball people believe it also offers a lifeline to a sport hurt by Japan's decade-long economic recession and by the loss of marquee stars to the U.S.

"It'll be a real contraction, and it is going to have a significant effect on Japanese baseball," said Itaru Kobayashi, a pitcher for the Chiba Lotte Marines in the early 1990s and now a university professor in Tokyo. "It is good and it is necessary, though I feel for some of the players who will be fired."

The players have so far avoided public comment, but Kobayashi said that while they may be angry, "their union is really weak."

Each team supports only 70 players between its league team and a single minor league affiliate, meaning there are very few professional roster spots to begin with. And with a base built on more than 4,000 high school baseball teams, Japan generates a steady supply of hopefuls.

Those conditions mean the owners have always had the freedom to fix the problems facing the Japanese game. The only obstacle until now has been their own inertia.

"Most teams have big red ink, and it's been going up and up for years," said Shigeyoshi Inoh, who was the chief executive of the Orix team in the 1990s when current Seattle Mariner star Ichiro Suzuki played for the Blue Wave. Orix plays in the earthquake-scarred port city of Kobe, a quintessential small-market team that is in the Pacific League basement, 15 games behind only 63 games into the 140-game season.

"They were facing a limit on revenues and unlimited expenditures on salaries," Inoh said of his successors at Orix. "The owners have to fix the game or it won't survive."

The list of what ails Japanese baseball is long, but it is probably best encapsulated by the case of outfielder Hideki Matsui, the superstar of his generation who now plays for the New York Yankees instead of for the Central League's Yomiuri Giants of Tokyo. In the early days of the Japanese migration to North America, players who left Japan were derided as traitors -- the label hung on pioneer pitcher Hideo Nomo when he jumped to the Dodgers in 1995.

But even in pinstripes, Matsui is clutched to the Japanese bosom.

His image is ubiquitous in Tokyo, whether staring out at commuters from poster ads on the subway system or on the daily broadcasts of Yankee games. Relegated to a cable channel, Matsui's Yankees still draw a respectable 1.5 million viewers or so -- at 9 in the morning Japan time.

Meanwhile, the Giants' TV ratings are down (though still holding a respectable 20 million or so viewers on average) and a few empty seats are visible for the first time in memory at the team's home games in the Tokyo Dome.

Any sign of weakness in the Giants' allure is a bad sign for Japanese baseball because the Giants essentially are Japanese baseball. The club is owned by the huge Yomiuri media group, which features the Giants prominently in the sports pages of its mass-circulation daily newspaper and in action nightly on its national television network.

The Pacific League teams have been lobbying for years for interleague play that would let them bask in a bit of the Giants' glow. The Giants' five Central League opponents have, in turn, guarded that privilege fiercely.

"The problem in Japan is that the whole country has been brainwashed into becoming Giants fans," said Robert Whiting, an American writer in Tokyo who is an authority on Japanese baseball. "People just don't feel right if there's no Giants game on TV."

Without the Giants to play, Pacific League teams such as the struggling Blue Wave and Buffaloes almost never make it to prime time. Their players remain relatively anonymous (Ichiro used to complain bitterly about the injustice of batting .300 in obscurity) and the clubs get a small fraction of the Giants' TV revenues.

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