Baseball On My Brain

It was almost a year ago today…

That I was sitting in the 300 level just above 3rd base at Coors Field in Denver watching game 3 of the World Series.

It was a brisk 45 degrees at game time, with a solid Rocky Mountain wind that made it feel in the neighborhood of about 35 degrees. Being somewhat underdressed, I froze my butt off, and for the first time had a hot chocolate with peppermint Schnapps, at a ballgame no less and out of a styrofoam cup.

But let me tell you – it was darn near the best thing I’d had at a ballpark, especially in a moment of need.

Jump back to the present day, and here I sit on my back patio, in about 48 degrees of warmth (?!?), again with a hot chocolate, enjoying a nice cigar but no baseball happening, at least – not in my world or not that I’ll be going to. The Mariners are long out of it, and I’m planning on staying home this year. The All-Star Game was my one big trip this year, and given the economy and some other projects, I’m going to be enjoying the postseason from my couch.

So the laptop will have to replace the stadium full of baseball fans in the midst of pennant fever. Not quite the same thing, but it will do.

As you can tell, there’s not much news in the baseball world right now; MLB makes a request of all its teams to keep news to a minimum in the postseason so as to not to distract from its “jewel events” as they are referred to by those in the Park Avenue offices. Sometimes news will come out – refer back to the Alex Rodriguez drama that claimed the attention during last year’s Series if you need to understand why.

So in the downtime, I turn attention to a story I came across on today – that the Japanese Professional Baseball League is trying to discourage Japanese amateur players from going straight to the American Major Leagues.

Like many, I’ve drawn the comparison of the Japanese Leagues to the Negro Leagues fairly often when it comes to an analysis of player integration into the Majors. If you haven’t yet, watch an ESPN program called “The Zen of Bobby V.” for a bit of insight into why keeping Japanese talent in Japan has been so hard, and what one American (Bobby Valentine) thinks should be done about it.

In the past 15 or so years, we’ve seen a door gradually open through which Japanese players have come into MLB. Don’t feel bad if you don’t remember Masanori Murakami, who pitched all of 54 games with the 1964-65 San Francisco Giants. After him, it took 30 years for another Japanese player to make it to The Show – a guy by the name of Hideo Nomo.

Since then, we’ve seen some fairly decent names come across the Pacific – Shigetoshi Hasegawa, Kazuhiro Sasaki, Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Hideki Okajima, and Kosuke Fukudome, for instance. Sure there have been some players that didn’t work out so well, but that’s no different than players who come from the States or Latin America. Not everyone is cut out for the Major Leagues.

What is happening though is sad for the health of the Japanese leagues – the best players are being picked one by one to come to the Majors via the posting process that currently exists. Now there are players who want to bypass the Japanese draft and go right into playing ball in the USA.

Obviously this is bad for the league – take out the best players, and you no longer have as much interest generated. With the accessibility of media on a global scale, it’s as easy to follow Matsuzaka and Okajima from Boston as it is Ichiro in Seattle, or your local club in Tokyo. Sure you might not be able to go to games, but if you have a vested interest in certain players playing at the highest level of competition, you’re going to follow them even if they’re an ocean away.

The gap comes in that MLB has not expanded outside of North America – mainly due to travel and an imbalance in the economies of other countries. For many years it was hard to achieve a balance with the Canadian teams because of the difference in currency. That gap has closed quite a bit, and luckily Toronto isn’t that far of a flight from most of the current MLB cities. It fits into road trips fairly well – so it’s not that much of an issue.

But imagine trying to schedule games in Japan – not only would the travel be almost outrageous, but putting the games on TV back in the US would mean they’d be on in the wee hours of the morning for most people. It just wouldn’t work.

So take an organization – let’s call it MLB – and its teams who will scour the earth for the best talent to help them win ballgames and championships. Even though the US didn’t win either the WBC or Olympic Gold Medal, it’s still got a stranglehold on the top level of professional competition. Unless something really turns upside down, I don’t foresee that changing anytime in the immediate future.

Then take players who obviously want to compete at the highest level possible, no matter where they are in the world.

And factor in that there isn’t a feasible way to bring that highest level of professional competition to the homes of those players.

Last but not least, remember that there is another professional baseball organization who is trying to keep as many of those great players for themselves as possible – let’s call that group the Japanese professional baseball league.

Conflict arises. Surprised?

The big loser in this – at least at the moment, is the Japanese professional league and all the related businesses that make money off them. I’m not sure if there are parking lot attendants, program sellers and restaurants who rely on baseball in Japan as there are in the US, but let’s assume there are. Just like the businesses who became the support system and beneficiary of the Negro Leagues both rose and fell with their success, so will those Japanese businesses.

But what’s happening is both a good and bad situation; I don’t want to say that we’re watching the beginning of the demise of the Japanese leagues, but in some ways I feel we are. Maybe it will stay around at a smaller level, but it certainly will lack the star power that it could have because Japan’s biggest stars are in MLB.

On the other hand though, we are seeing an integration of baseball at a whole new level – with not only Latin American ball players but Japanese, Chinese, and Korean ballplayers becoming ever more present in the game.

So as I sit and read the article about the Japanese teams trying to discourage players from bypassing the Japanese draft and going into the MLB system, I find myself asking – is this just a matter of looking out for their own businesses?

I don’t know if the integration angle translates as well as it did with the Negro Leagues – in the latter, you were talking about Americans keeping fellow Americans out of the game because of the color of their skin.

Here we are talking about keeping what amounts to independent contractors out of the global marketplace because the domestic industry leaders – or would it be fair to say monopoly? – doesn’t want that talent leaving the homeland?

Basically either play for us for nine years, and then you’re free to do what you want, or try your luck in America, but be prepared to sit out for two or three years if it doesn’t work out over there.

This thing really doesn’t sit well with me – even though I know that the continued growth of Japanese ballplayers in the Major Leagues is what seems ultimately best for the game.

To punish a player for wanting to pursue his craft at the highest level of competition just seems wrong. Would it be fair to tell an engineering student that if he can’t find a job in America, that he would be forced to be unemployed for two or three years upon returning to Japan? Or would that even be possible? Would the market simply not tolerate it?

While I can respect the position of the Japanese owners to offer an incentive – if you want to call it that – to keep their homegrown talent around, it seems like this will ultimately backfire. MLB will at some point come up with a system that mimics the current draft process of American kids — imagine teams with full bore scouting departments in Japan. It’s probably much closer than we all think.

I can’t help but think this is an effort that will ultimately backfire on the owners. While there is probably some cultural forces at play as well that I’m not aware of, I think the desire of both the players to go the Major Leagues and MLB’s desire to bring the best talent into the fold will win out.

Playing in the Major Leagues is still what it’s all about for most players – and when push comes to shove, I have to think that they will sidestep any kind of obstacle keeping them from that goal.


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