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Our gain is Japan's loss

The country's top baseball players are flocking to the U.S. like never before, taking advertisers and fans with them.

June 01, 2008|Danielle Sessa | Bloomberg News

It's the bottom of the ninth inning, and the Chicago Cubs are in a familiar position. They're losing.

Kosuke Fukudome, the right fielder who joined the Cubs in December from the Chunichi Dragons in Japan, digs into the batter's box in his first game in the U.S. major leagues. With two runners on base, Fukudome smacks a home run over the brick wall at Wrigley Field, tying the opening day game against the Milwaukee Brewers and triggering screams from Chicago fans.

After the game, which the Cubs lost 4-3, Fukudome walks into an interview room packed with 50, mostly Japanese, reporters. A two-time batting champion and four-time Gold Glove winner back home, the latest import from Japan takes questions while sitting in front of a hanging wall advertisement that measures 8 feet (2.4 meters) by 8 feet. Nippon Life Insurance Co., Japan's biggest life insurer, paid the Cubs an undisclosed amount to display its red and white diamond logo during Fukudome's interviews for two seasons.

Japan's top players are flocking to the U.S. like never before, taking advertisers and fans with them and threatening the future of the 12 teams in Nippon Professional Baseball.

"Japanese baseball has been defeated for now because Japan allowed the U.S. to take not only our players but money as well," says Hidetoshi Kiyotake, general manager of the Yomiuri Giants, whose 20 championships since 1950 make it Japan's most successful franchise. "Through broadcasting and advertising, Major League Baseball took a significant portion of revenue from Japan."

'Kill the Sport'

Since 1995, U.S. clubs have swiped 33 of Japan's best players, including center fielder Ichiro Suzuki, a slap hitter who's won two batting titles with the Seattle Mariners since leaving the Orix BlueWave in 2000. Major-league teams have dished out more than $600 million in contracts to players -- often tripling their salaries -- to cross the Pacific.

The departures have stunted the growth of Japanese baseball while boosting the sport in America: From 1997 to 2007, total revenue for NPB remained at about $1.2 billion a year, says Ryuzo Setoyama, president of the Chiba Lotte Marines. MLB's revenue tripled to $6 billion in the same period, with the value of the league's sponsorship deals with Japanese companies quadrupling between 2003 and '07.

"MLB is trying to kill the sport," says Bobby Valentine, an American who managed the Texas Rangers and New York Mets for 15 years and has led the Marines since 2003. "It should be trying to help it."

The baseball ties between the two countries run deep -- all the way back to 1872, when an American professor of English named Horace Wilson introduced what would soon become Japan's most popular sport.

Surpassing Hank Aaron

More than a century later, beginning in 1995, American agents and scouts played the leading role in harvesting Japan's best talent, sidestepping NPB's recruitment barriers and overcoming the players' loyalty to their clubs.

Japan's top players are lionized. Sadaharu Oh of the Giants was awarded the Japanese National Medal of Honor in 1977 after he surpassed, at age 37, American Hank Aaron's record of 755 home runs.

The country of about 127 million people has at least 11 newspapers devoted to sports, mostly to baseball. Fans also travel to the U.S. to follow their heroes. Agents have booked more than 10,000 tours for Japanese fans since 2001 to watch Suzuki and countrymen Hideki Matsui of the New York Yankees and Daisuke Matsuzaka, a four-time strikeout king in Japan who moved to the Boston Red Sox in 2007.

Babe Ruth in Japan

Boston paid $51 million to the Seibu Lions for the rights to negotiate with Matsuzaka, 27, and another $52 million to sign him to a six-year deal. The right-hander sparkled in his 2007 debut, striking out 10 Kansas City Royals with his 95-mile-per- hour (153-kilometer-per-hour) fastball. He finished the season with a 15-12 record and helped the Red Sox capture the 2007 World Series title.

"We couldn't have won without Daisuke Matsuzaka; that much is clear," says Larry Lucchino, the Red Sox's president. This year, he's 8-0.

Sixty years after Wilson taught the game to his students at Tokyo's Ichiban Chugaku University, it was none other than Babe Ruth -- one of the greatest players ever -- who put baseball on the map in Japan. Ruth, who was known as the Sultan of Swat, would own the major-league career home run record for 39 years.

In 1934, Ruth led a squad of major leaguers to Japan that included Yankees teammate and two-time American League Most Valuable Player Lou Gehrig. In an era before television, several hundred thousand fans lined the streets of Tokyo for a parade welcoming the big-league stars. The Americans crushed Japan's top amateurs, winning all 16 games of an exhibition series. Ruth smacked 13 home runs.

World War II

Matsutaro Shoriki, owner of Yomiuri Shimbun, publisher of Japan's largest newspaper, was inspired by the 65,000 fans who filled Meiji Jingu Stadium in Tokyo to watch Ruth and Gehrig.

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