The lords of Japanese baseball want you to know they are making every effort to raise Japan’s level of professional baseball. And the proof of that, they’ll tell you is they have added
two teams to NPB’s minor Eastern and Western leagues this season.
For several years, there have been calls for NPB to expand, and this is the best the owners could come up with.
This isn’t expansion. It isn’t even minor league expansion. It’s the creation of a substrata of second-class clubs who will essentially exist to service the 12 existing teams and get nothing in return except the knowledge that they are a rung higher in status than other independent clubs.
The new teams is Shizuoka and Niigata are being treated the way Japanese citizens were treated in apartheid-era South Africa, not as members of the ruling caste but as “honorary members” expected to be grateful to their NPB betters by being place above those the subordinate caste.
In 2005, the demise of the Pacific League’s Kintetsu Buffaloes turned the WL into a five-team league, while the new PL club, the Rakuten Eagles, joined the EL to make it a seven-team circuit. Adding one team to each league fixes that problem, creates second chances for players who washed out of NPB, but after that does nothing, which is the plan.
The two teams, Niigata’s Albirex, and Shizuoka’s Hayate, who have both sold their naming rights to local sponsors, are sanctioned to compete in the EL and WL, respectively, but otherwise might as well be independent minor league clubs, whose players aspire to earn a standard NPB contract and be placed on one of the 12 70-man rosters.
According to Kyodo News, the plan was raised by Yomiuri Giants owner Toshikazu Yamaguchi when he was the chair of the 2022 owners committee. He said he wanted to raise the level of Japanese pro baseball and increase interest in the sport “without leading to actual expansion.”
It would be easy to say NPB owners hate change, but that is not entirely true. In 2004, most owners were bent on reducing the number of teams, thinking it would make their league stronger, so it’s not change they hate. My guess is that the most influential owners believe real expansion will lessen their sway and influence, and that doesn’t fly if you’re Yomiuri.
I hate to be mean, but nothing says “Yomiuri Giants owner” quite like forcing other owners to create rules that help your team at the expense of theirs and then bending those rules when it suits you.
When Masayoshi Son bought the Daiei Hawks after the 2004 season, he echoed the dream of the Japan League’s founder Matsutaro Shoriki, who wanted his Yomiuri team to be the best in the world. But there is little chance of the Hawks will succeed either, as long as the other 11 owners are content with a system in which they happily lose money on baseball teams that generate huge advertising value and tax write-offs.
What would happen if Japan’s baseball-mad population was served by an NPB establishment that really cared about being better? My goodness.
Japan’s owners could invest in knowhow and overseas scouting, create deeper minor leagues or coopt existing independent leagues to fill that role, eliminate roster limits on players acquired outside its domestic draft and expand to 16 teams. Japan could have the best stadiums in the world and be a circuit that the world’s best players dreamed of competing in.
OK. Let’s skip that pipe dream for a moment and talk about what the owners should have done this year.
The two new teams could have been admitted as NPB franchises, eligible to get players through the NPB draft and develop them with an eye toward winning games selling tickets, advertising, concessions, and broadcast rights. Those players would be theirs to trade or sell to NPB teams, and as these teams grew deeper talent bases, they would have the option of becoming full NPB major league clubs with all the costs and obligations that come with it.
This is one way to expand, by having teams develop local fan bases and their own talent.
Of course, it’s unrealistic, because most of today’s NPB owners remind me of the Orix Buffaloes after their merger, when the team hired Terry Collins to manage and gave him a mandate to revolutionize the team’s culture from top to bottom, provided he not change the way anything was done.
As I commented at the time, his job was like being asked to paint a room without being allowed to move any of the furniture.
Once more, NPB owners will be smug in the belief that only they can fix things, while doing absolutely nothing.