A new hope

Masahiro Tanaka is back, and Japanese baseball is celebrating as if one of the major leagues’ better players has decided Japan is the best place for him to play–because that is exactly what happened.

Tanaka’s return is a sign, although not the chauvinistic one some old farts would have you believe about the ethnic superiority of Japan’s game. I exaggerate but it seems some would tell us Japan’s sun goddess Amaterasu ordained No. 2 batters be small middle infielders whose sacred duty is to execute sacrifice bunts.

What it does mean is that Japan can be a viable destination for players who are still in demand in the majors. In a sense, Tanaka is low-hanging fruit. He’s not among the majors’ very best, and he’s returning, temporarily at least, with his family to his homeland during a global health crisis from a country where racist behavior is once more tolerated by a sizable minority.

The challenge for Japanese baseball’s stakeholders, fans and advocates is to see Tanaka’s choice for what it isn’t, at least not yet: a global migration of talent that could change the face of the baseball playing world. Want to keep Japan’s best talent in Japan? Make Japan’s game better.

Not everyone wants to play in Japan, even when the money is better, that’s what free choice is all about. Matt Moore reportedly turned down much a much better offer from the SoftBank Hawks to play for the Phillies.

The idea is to make NPB open to and attractive to the world’s best talent, and to do that, NPB needs to make its business profitable at home and abroad.

Since 1957, there have been 12 pro teams in Japan. Sixty-four years later there are still 12 top-flight teams here. Japanese pro ball expanded from eight teams to 15 in 1950, but it was untenable without enough established local fan bases or suitable stadiums.

But the lesson derived from 1950’s hyper expansion was not that it was too early, but that 12 is the correct number for Japan, and so we have 12 and would have had 10 had it not been for the intervention of the fans and players.

That 2004 fan rebellion against contraction should not have been a surprise. Baseball is in peoples’ blood. When people in my Tokyo neighborhood find I write about baseball someone will bend my ear to rave about some second-year high school shortstop in far-away Wakayama Prefecture and invite me to play in their weekend league.

When Taiwan’s Chinese Professional Baseball League was the world’s best pro baseball for a time, people around the world could watch English broadcasts. When South Korea’s Korean Baseball Organization opened for business, it did a deal with ESPN to broadcast games in English.

When Nippon Professional Baseball followed suit on June 19? Nothing. Pacific League TV did a little to make its Japanese language streaming service slightly more accessible to English speakers, but little else. Japanese baseball, as a body, can’t market its games because the Yomiuri Shimbun, which founded Japan’s first pro league–although not its first pro team, still holds sway over most of the Central League teams and the most risk-averse PL team.

The Giants’ goal, as it should be, is to win the Japan Series every year, something they were exceedingly good before a draft, introduced to deprive amateurs of their bargaining power, also introduced competitive balance. Japan’s pro baseball market is mature, and though growth is possible, the Yomiuri Shimbun’s mission is to make sure that growth does not come at the expense of its market share and influence.

For that reason, NPB does not allow joint marketing of licensed goods, or shared gates, or broadcast revenues. Because of the way Japan’s media market works, teams’ broadcasters only cover their home games. Road games belong to the home team, which is good for variety but not so good for building fan bases by having the same media partners covering home AND road games for the whole season.

When overseas broadcasters come knocking, NPB’s answer has been: “If you want to broadcast games you need to obtain the rights from each home team.” Want to air a digest of NPB highlights? Get permission from all 12 teams first.

If a Japanese network wants to go whole hog and bid on the Japan Series and turn it into its marquee event, it can’t. Japan Series rights, while technically allotted by NPB, are assigned by the home teams as part of their annual negotiations with their regular broadcasters and rubber-stamped by the other owners when they qualify for the season finale.

Now is the time to fix it, find a patch for the rules to allow an NPB committee to negotiate overseas broadcast rights, and then move on to the next issue, expansion – both in the number of teams and in talent. Increase to 16 teams and get rid of the active import player restriction.

If teams can make winning pay, there will be more incentive for the three clubs who rent their home parks to fix that no-win situation and allow two of them to invest more in the development of talent that is theirs for the taking because MLB is slashing salaries to the bone.

With Japan’s economic might, and passion for the game, there is no reason it should not have the world’s best pro baseball. There are educational system issues – particularly the one that tethers school kids to one sport for year-round practice, but Japan’s baseball organizing bodies are waking up to the health costs associated with year-round overtraining and excessive in-game demands on young pitchers’ arms.

Japanese society exists at the confluence of a nationalistic narcissism about its own racial superiority and uniqueness and a vibrant inferiority complex when comparing itself to the United States. Its style of small ball is considered suitable for players with smaller physiques and morally superior—a boundless dedication to practice and execution.

The flip side of that is a firm belief that imported players will always be bigger and stronger. In that model, Japan is always the overachieving underdog, never the favorite; the purest, the most dedicated to the craft, but never the best.

Tomoyuki Sugano’s decision to play for the Giants in Tokyo in 2021, and Masahiro Tanaka’s decision to return to Sendai with the Eagles, unleashed a wave of nationalistic pride, a middle finger to the majors. But until NPB sees that a bigger future is within its grasp, it will never be more than the small hustling kid on the playground who always plays but is always the last picked.

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