Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW)/日本からの意見

Japanese Professional Baseball: The Continuing Drain to the MLB
TOMISHIGE Keiko / Senior Editorial Staff Writer, Mainichi Shimbun

May 16, 2007
Two players who once were dazzling star performers in Japanese professional baseball competed again, at a different time and place, wearing different uniforms. On April 11 (April 12 in Japan), Daisuke Matsuzaka of the Boston Red Sox was standing on the pitcher's mound of Fenway Park, the oldest baseball stadium in use in the United States. In the batter's box was Ichiro Suzuki of the Seattle Mariners. In a replay of a scene from the game between the Seibu Lions and the Orix Blue Wave in Japan seven years ago, the two players faced with each other across a distance of 18.44 meters. It is exciting to watch that 36,630 spectators, the second largest crowd in the stadium's post-war history, witnessed this thrilling re-encounter.

According to the Major League Baseball (MLB), as many as 29 percent of its registered 849 players at the opening of the 2007 season (including those on the disabled list) are from outside the United States. The Dominican Republic leads with 98, followed by Venezuela with 51 and Canada with 19. Japan comes fifth, with 13 players.

When Hideki Nomo joined the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1995, the question was whether a Japanese player was up to Major League standards. Now, in Matsuzaka's case, people are interested in whether he can win 15 games or more. It is clear that in the 13 years since Nomo, the top players in Japanese professional baseball have won full recognition in the U.S.

The Japanese, who by nature are delighted to see their compatriots do well on the international stage, support and applaud Matsuzaka, Ichiro, and other Japanese MLB players. But those concerned with the management of Japanese professional baseball clubs are afraid that this drain of star players to the MLB is the beginning of the hollowing-out of Japanese professional baseball.

The thirteen Japanese MLB players are certainly All Star Game quality. Try forming a starting line-up by them, and you have a player in every position, missing only a first baseman. In other words, most of the players who considered themselves to be number ones in their respective positions in Japan have gone over to the MLB.

The club that was most shocked by this star drain was the Yomiuri Giants, which pretends the leader of Japanese professional baseball. Hideki Matsui, the team's most popular outfielder, became eligible as a Free Agent (FA) in 2002 and left the team to join the New York Yankees in 2003. The Giants had hitherto claimed that "It is the popularity of the club Yomiuri Giants that prevents the Japanese players from going over to the MLB." They argued that it was better for Japanese professional baseball that star players joined the Giants rather than go over to the MLB. They also claimed that under Japan's draft system it was necessary for rookie ball players to be able to name the team of their choice and that the period necessary for players to become eligible as FA and able to move to a club of their choice should be shortened. But this argument collapsed when their own star player, Hideki Matsui, chose to go over to the MLB. It was clear that the Yomiuri Giants could not be a buffer to prevent the drain to the MLB.

More players now set their sights on the MLB for several reasons. Nomo's success has shown them that the level of Japanese baseball is good enough for the MLB. They are also attracted by the higher salary, at an average of US$ 2,944,556 or 347.5 million yen and by the excellent playing environment such as the beautiful ball parks with natural, not artificial, turf. But surely the biggest motivator of all is the level of baseball, which is the highest in the world. It is natural for players to want to play at a higher level. For those in Matsuzaka's generation the MLB became not a distant dream but an attainable goal as this is the generation that saw on television Nomo and others playing in the MLB just when they discovered the fun of baseball in elementary and junior high schools, The world strategy of the MLB also accelerated the increase in the number of Japanese MLB players. When the period of expansion in the number of clubs in the U.S. came to a halt in the 90s, putting a stop to the ever-increasing size of the domestic pie, the MLB decided to expand its market overseas. They scheduled official games overseas, signed on Japanese players in order to attract Japanese tourists, collected television broadcasting right fees, and sold goods with the MLB logo overseas. For the MLB, Japan was a perfect market.

Is Japanese professional baseball going to become a part of the hierarchy with the MLB at the apex? Or is it going to remain independent and retain its position as a league that can compete with the MLB? It is now time for a serious discussion about the direction of Japanese professional baseball itself.

The writer is a Senior Editorial Staff Writer of the Mainichi Shimbun.
The English-Speaking Union of Japan

冨重 圭以子 / 毎日新聞 専門編集委員

2007年 5月 16日









(筆者は毎日新聞 専門編集委員。)
一般社団法人 日本英語交流連盟

English Speaking Union of Japan > Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW) > Japanese Professional Baseball: The Continuing Drain to the MLB