Becoming a modern day Joshua

High school pitcher Roki Sasaki is in an unusual position.

Having pitched baseballs at 100 miles per hour, professional clubs in America and Japan may be more flexible than usual when it comes to negotiating with the Ofunato High School senior. Of course, whether he uses that leverage to break down barriers, or just goes with the flow is up to him.

The barriers

In my last post, I laid out the hurdles that stand in Sasaki’s way if he wants to play in the major leagues. A straight line may be the shortest geometric distance between two points, the quickest and easiest way for Sasaki to become a big leaguer might well be to play in Nippon Professional Baseball.

Ideally, he’d like to emulate fellow Iwate Prefecture native Shohei Ohtani and go to the majors as a 23-year-old as a veteran professional. Unfortunately, MLB closed that door before the 2018 season, by changing NPB teams’ posting fees to a percentage of a player’s contract and at the same time decided any overseas player under 25 can only sign a minor league contract and receive a case of catfood in exchange in lieu of a signing bonus. That worked for Ohtani because MLB exempted his NPB club, the Nippon Ham Fighters from the new rules and allowed them to request a $20 million posting fee.

So a 23-year-old posting is out of the question for Sasaki, who still might conceivably be drafted by a team that refuses to post players at all.

Ohtani had the option of going straight to a major league club out of high school as a pitcher but made the excellent choice of signing with the Fighters, a progressive organization that helped him nurture his unusual skill set and permitted him to go to the majors when he was ready. It seems unlikely an MLB club could have done as well.

The NPB advantage

If a teenager is really talented but not ready for the majors, NPB is a vastly better place to start than the U.S. minors. NPB’s two top leagues present a combination of world-class pitchers and hitters and a much lower floor for talent than in the majors. A really good youngster with confidence can test himself against some of the best in the world while still going up against players only a little better but more experienced than he is.

But having solved one problem by an NPB detour, only creates another for a major league aspirant: how to limit NPB’s nine-year indentured servitude and transition to MLB while young enough to make meaningful adjustments? The only meaningful way is to use his rare talent as a trumpet to bring down the barriers put in his way like Joshua and the Israelites were supposed to have done to the walls of Jericho.

Upsetting the applecart

In 2013, the wall of conventional wisdom that separated position players from pitchers — and said none shall ever do both – was broken because of Shohei Ohtani. In order to sign him and prevent the youngster from going to the U.S. as a pitcher, Fighters manager Hideki Kuriyama seized the moment, blew his trumpet and changed the world. Ohtani wouldn’t have gone that far on his own, but his talent, hard work — and his declared intent to play in America – brought Kuriyama and the Fighters to Jericho. The skipper didn’t bring down the wall but he created a breach big enough for Ohtani to step through and change baseball.

This autumn, Sasaki will be in the same position Ohtani was in late in 2012, and his choices will be difficult and fraught with anxiety and uncertainty. Assuming he wants to play in this year’s summer national high school tournament, and also hopes to play professionally in Japan, he will need to do what no one has ever done. He’ll have to announce he’ll only sign with a team that promises to post him on his terms.

That alone could generate as much negative press as Hideo Nomo’s announcement after the 1994 season that he was leaving Japan as a “retired player” to play in the majors. Nomo did the hard work, bore the brunt of the hostility, but he still needed help from agent Don Nomura and attorney Jean Afterman. And Sasaki, if he chooses to buck tradition and demand a posting promise before signing, is going to need some serious backup, too, and that will require him to break another taboo. Until now, no Japanese amateur — that I know of — has ever employed an agent to negotiate with the club that won his rights through the draft. And if the posting demand doesn’t force Japan’s ubiquitous sports dailies to exhaust their colored ink supplies, bringing in an agent – particularly one from the States — will.

Teams typically talk to a young draftee, his parents, his coach and perhaps a friendly advisor. But an agent? Not on your nelly. Perhaps they will and perhaps they won’t. Perhaps the team that drafts him will be the Yomiuri Giants or the SoftBank Hawks, who never post players and have no interest in opening that door for an 18-year-old. If so, they will wage a campaign through the media about the need to protect Japanese values and try to wait out the youngster. They won’t want to give up on him because NPB doesn’t hand out compensation draft picks the way MLB does.

The problem with that tactic, is that Sasaki, having gone to all the trouble of hiring an agent, will already have Plan B in place, which is to register with MLB in May for the next international signing period from July 2020 to June 2021. Perhaps that will light a fire under the NPB team in question and force them to deal fairly with Sasaki.

At the heart of the problem is the draft. It was implemented to keep amateurs from getting fair market value for their services and worked that way, until the top picks in America eventually started demanding something approaching fair value. The new CBA limits how much money teams can spend on signing bonuses, depriving the amateurs once more of their rights. In the same way, the new CBA allowed MLB clubs to pay Ohtani – an established star in a top-flight pro league– the same as an 18-year-old coming out of an American high school.

Japanese teams, too, have a signing bonus and contract limit on each sign newly signed draft pick, that apparently is now enforced. But they can offer more than money. They can offer — as the Fighters did with Ohtani —  a development plan and the right to choose his destiny. Baseball tradition, of course, weighs heavily against giving players options, but there are no rules restricting treating players like valued human beings.

Of course, there is no need to bend over backward for most players. This only applies to individuals who put themselves in prime position, as Ohtani did and Sasaki can. For those players with talent and options, walls can tumble, provided someone is willing to pick up that trumpet.

If young Mr. Sasaki really wants to play in the majors, there is no harm in playing Joshua and seeing what walls he can bring down.

The comic history of player agents in NPB

The story of agents negotiating for domestic players in Japan could have been written by Jerry Seinfeld. For years and years, owners would not negotiate with Japanese players’ agents. In short, the owners’ stance was “tradition.”

But as much as owners shout about traditions being inflexible, Japan’s loudest and most powerful owner over the past 40 years was also the most hypocritical. Enter former Yomiuri Shimbun president Tsuneo Watanabe, known far and wide as “Nabetsune.”

One of Japan’s most notable blowhards, then the “owner” of the Giants, Watanabe, was the leader in saying Japanese baseball relationships were unique and personal, where an agent had no place. Watanabe declared that any Giants player who hired an agent must be lacking in character and would be handed his release.

Then came pitcher Kimiyasu Kudo, now a Hall of Famer and the manager of the SoftBank Hawks. Kudo, who had joined the then-Daiei Hawks as a freee agent, tested the waters a second time after he’d helped the franchise to victory in the 1999 Japan Series. Kudo eventually signed with the Giants after sending his agent to negotiate. Other owners were livid that Nabetsune had broken ranks, but Watanabe said the attorney in question wasn’t acting as Kudo’s agent, and was only “meeting” with club officials – rather than negotiating.

The years went by and the owners continued to reject players’ agents, until the Giants did it again. This time, ace pitcher Koji Uehara sent his agent to talk with the club for his annual salary negotiation. Uehara had turned down a lucrative offer from the Angels to sign with the Giants out of university, and if Nabestsune would make good on his boast, the pitcher could go to the majors at his leisure. Unfortunately, as with Kudo, the Giants denied having talked with an agent, but rather with “a friend of the pitcher’s acting as an advisor.”

But that kind of newspaper fodder was bound to end, and did when the players union hired attorneys. Knowing “baseball tradition” has no legal weight regardless how many times their words appeared in the press, the owners accepted agents, but only for one year and only on a trial basis. That was 20 years ago,  and agents are now commonplace.

Jim Allen

sports editor for a wire service in Tokyo

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