Wither Japanese Baseball?
- Somebody who is a regular participant on a SeattleMariners board was kind enough to pass this
Major League Baseball
Japanese baseball resistant to change
By Michael Zielenziger
Knight Ridder Newspapers
TOKYO - Japan has a winning export that suddenly is causing great
consternation at home: Baseball players saying sayonara.
When Red Sox pitcher Hideo Nomo faced Mariner outfielder Ichiro Suzuki
on Wednesday, 20 million Japanese fans tuned in to see the live broadcast,
even though it was midday there. Such interest could spell disaster for
Japan's baseball league, where TV ratings have nose-dived.
"It's the Ichiro effect," said Masaru Ikei, a historian at Keio University in
Tokyo and the first Japanese member of the Society of American Baseball
Researchers. The exodus of top Japanese players to the U.S. major leagues
"is very, very dangerous" for the Japanese game, he said.
Ever since Nomo joined the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1995, Japanese fans
have followed the U.S. game. But Nomo and other Japanese starting
pitchers, such as the Expos' Hideki Irabu, play only every five days. Ichiro,
a swift outfielder with a fluid swing, is the first Japanese position player to be
in the daily lineup for a major-league team. Ever since the Mariners penciled
him in at right field on Opening Day, repercussions have caromed like a
wicked line drive.
"We're going to be just like Russia, where all the best ice hockey players go
off to play" in the National Hockey League, frets Ikei, who loves the New
York Mets. "If this keeps up, we'll be nothing more than a farm system" for
the major leagues. "My interest has shifted to the U.S. majors, and I'm not
TV ratings for Japanese baseball have dropped 15 percent. At Kobe's
Green Stadium, where Ichiro once patrolled right field for the Blue Wave,
attendance is down 40 percent this season. The club averages less than
12,000 fans for home games.
On many nights, diagnoses of Ichiro's plate appearances lead the national
newscasts, and rumors are flying that next year more Japanese stars such as
Giants slugger Hideki Matsui will step in against major-league pitching.
"Japanese are getting to see how much better the big-leaguers are," said
Robert Whiting, author of two books on Japanese baseball. "It's the first
time fans can see the difference in speed and power and technique."
Ichiro seems unaware of the falling attendance and TV ratings in Japan that
his success with Seattle may be unleashing.
"I didn't hear about that," he told The Seattle Times last night through his
interpreter. "I can't comment on it."
Many think the growing exodus of Japanese ballplayers is oblique criticism
of the Japanese game and its rigid coaching system, which have not changed
to reflect the times.
"The old guard assumed the young players would not move to the United
States," said Kenta Aoshima, a broadcaster and former third baseman for
the Yakult Swallows, one of Tokyo's three professional teams. "But the
young guys who grew up with American culture like McDonald's and
Denny's, they think it's cool to go abroad."
Aoshima notes the decision by Tsuyoshi Shinjo, dubbed "Spaceman" by
Japanese fans, to turn down a five-year, $12 million contract with the
Hanshin Tigers to sign a $400,000 deal with the Mets. Unlike Ichiro, who
led the Pacific League in hitting for seven consecutive years, Shinjo was
considered an average player. He's now being platooned in the Met outfield.
"The fundamental reason he went abroad is the nature of Japanese baseball,"
Aoshima said. Talented players are rebelling against oppressive coaches,
who are notorious for demanding nonstop practices, choreographed drills
and a top-down system of management not unlike Japanese corporate life.
"The kids have changed, but the coaching hasn't," Aoshima said.
Asked about the differences in Japanese and American coaches, Ichiro
noted that he has played in the U.S. only a few months. "It's hard for me to
make a comparison," he said.
Sales of major-league memorabilia featuring Ichiro or Shinjo have surged.
A beer company offers Mariner warm-up jackets as a contest premium.
Thousands of Japanese are signing up for $1,800 four-day tours to Seattle,
where they see Ichiro bat in two games and, for extra money, get a quick
tour of the Mariners' locker room.
Before the season ends, the Mariners may become the new "home team" for
many Japanese because national broadcaster NHK is covering Ichiro
intensively, as well as Mariner reliever Kazu Sasaki, last year's American
League rookie of the year. NHK has wired Safeco Field so that Mariners'
home games can be broadcast live using a special high-definition TV format.
Broadcaster Aoshima is optimistic that the decision by Japanese stars to
abandon their local teams for the majors will force changes. Young players
exposed to the U.S. game will begin weight-lifting programs to improve
power and speed.
"When I was a kid, I wanted to be a (Yomiuri) Giants player, but now the
young guys are going to want to play for the Yankees, and I think it's good,"
the former third baseman said. "At first there may be a falloff of talent," as
the better players troop across the Pacific, "but I'm optimistic the Japanese
system will eventually change."
Baseball writer Whiting is less certain. "The whole Japanese approach to
baseball is coming back to haunt them," he said. "Coaches and managers
treat their players like recruits at boot camp. ... It's got to be redone from
the ground up."
Seattle Times staff reporter Bob Sherwin contributed to this report.