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Japan Might Balk at This Brand-New Ballgame

Nation's team owners threaten to skip inaugural World Baseball Classic over a dispute with MLB.

June 13, 2005|Bruce Wallace | Times Staff Writer

TOKYO — Threatening to take the bat out of Ichiro Suzuki's hands, Japan's enigmatic baseball team owners say they may keep their country out of the inaugural World Baseball Classic in March, souring baseball's effort to create a marquee international tournament to showcase the sport's emergence as a global game.

The Japanese owners oppose some of the arrangements made by Major League Baseball for what would be the first competitive matchup of the best players from the top baseball nations. The dispute is largely over how revenue from the 16-country tournament will be shared, Japanese baseball sources say, though the Japanese owners are also rebelling against what they see as MLB's disproportionate control over the event.

MLB executives say the competition will go ahead with or without the Japanese and are already looking into moving games scheduled for Japan to Taiwan and South Korea.

But there are worries that fans would regard a tournament without one of baseball's major powers and its stars such as the Seattle Mariners' Suzuki and New York Yankee Hideki Matsui as something less than a Spring Classic.

"We really don't know what their objections are; it's hard to figure," said Paul Archey, MLB's senior vice president for international business, who says the league believed it had a deal on Japanese participation last fall.

Archey will travel to Japan this week to meet with Japanese baseball officials and "try to iron out the issues."

"But I wouldn't call it a negotiation," he said.

MLB may have crashed into the convergence of dark forces in Japanese baseball. The sport is in trouble here, with attendance down, TV ratings off, and some of the top Japanese stars visible only on popular early-morning satellite broadcasts from places such as Dodger Stadium. It has bred some resentment of MLB here among suffering owners.

But the 12 Japanese clubs have been slow to react to the declining fan base as more Japanese youngsters are lured to other sports, notably soccer.

Baseball teams are representatives of the major corporations that own them, and do little in the way of joint marketing or souvenir licensing. The Japanese commissioner's office is widely regarded as unable to speak collectively for the owners. In fact, some Japanese owners have expressed a preference for a postseason competition of the best club teams from around the world.

"Japanese owners are very divided, on everything," said Masaru Ikei, an authority on Japanese-U.S. baseball relations.

Many baseball observers argue that Japan's problems are its best reason to embrace the Classic. The meshing of love for country with sporting pride has been the fuel for the success of the Olympics and soccer's World Cup, and MLB owners, after years of resistance themselves, now accept that there may be baseball horizons beyond the World Series.

Once they did, MLB took control of the event on the basis that it would be providing most of the players. The league pushed to hold it during spring training -- which horrified the Japanese who see spring training as crucial to fostering team harmony -- rather than trying to push another event into the crowded TV sports scene in November.

"There's no good time, but March is the best," Archey said. "Losing players from spring training is an issue for everyone. We have a pretty good spring training too, and we're going to lose 250 players. They will lose 20, 25.

"If we can manage it, they can manage it."

Some critics say it is MLB's style, not the November-versus-March argument or disputes over money, that rubs the Japanese badly.

"It's cultural differences that trigger these problems," said Jack Sakazaki, who represented MLB in Japan during the 1990s and is a sports consultant in Tokyo. "MLB's attitude is, 'We're taking the risk, we'll make the deal.' It is arrogant, and it ticks the Japanese off."

Archey said he was optimistic the Japanese won't pass up the opportunity to put their best up against the rest of the world's top players and reap the expected boost in fan interest.

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