Category Archives: Commentary

Liar’s poker

The course of relations between NPB and MLB has not always been smooth, and after 1995 — when Major League Baseball granted Hideo Nomo free agency because Nippon Professional Baseball’s organizing document is an obsolete mess that didn’t prohibit him from going.

To keep things civil, the two bodies have a document known in all its glory as the “Agreement between the Office of the Commissioner of Baseball and the Office of the Commissioner of Nippon Professional Baseball.”

Japan’s governing document, the Pro Baseball Agreement was based on the fallacy that Japanese players were inherently inferior to major leaguers. It did not prevent voluntarily retired NPB players from contracting with pro clubs overseas. The thinking was, if Japanese players are not good enough for MLB in the first place, what chance would a retired player have of making a roster?

Nomo moved to the majors by threatening to retire if the Kintetsu Buffaloes declined to meet his outrageous contract demands. They said, “No way,” forwarded his retirement application, and before you could say “sayonara,” he was a major league free agent.

I mention this, because it was followed by some spiteful lies from an NPB official that kept MLB teams from pursuing players in Japan.

Lies

In 1996, when Tadahito Iguchi was a star of Japan’s Atlanta Olympic team, and was seen as a potential candidate to play in MLB, one team filed the paperwork necessary to make sure he was available.

Mind you, Iguchi was then playing for Aoyama Gakuin University, and it really wasn’t necessary for an MLB team to get NPB’s permission, but one scout said, he did, and was told Iguchi was off limits, period.

To be sure, MLB had a kind of gentleman’s agreement to only sign players who had been passed over in NPB’s draft, but it was not a rule. But NPB, still smarting from the fact that MLB followed NPB’s rules when it granted Nomo free agency, simply lied and it took Iguchi another nine years before he would make his MLB debut with the Chicago White Sox.

Incompetence

In order to prevent another player from retiring in order to become a free agent in the States, NPB patched that hole in its leaky rule structure. Unfortunately, the person in charge of communicating with MLB, neglected one thing, Article 14 of the agreement.

“If either party to this Agreement has a material change in its reserve rules or any other rule identified in this Agreement, that party shall immediately notify the other party of any such change, and the other party shall have the right to seek renegotiation of and/or termination
of this Agreement upon ten (l0) days’ written notice.”

Two years passed without incident, until a speedy power-hitting 21-year-old decided he would be better off in the majors than under the stifling long-term deal he’d signed with the Hiroshima Carp as a 16-year-old in the Dominican Republic.

With help from agent Don Nomura and Jean Afterman, Alfonso Soriano announced his retirement from baseball, and, as they said, “did a Nomo.” When NPB pointed to its rules, MLB pointed to the lack of notice from NPB about changing the rules.

If NPB and the league executives were mad after Nomo, the Soriano screw-up left them steaming.

More lies

The next documented incident occurred in 2000. That year, the Nippon Ham Fighters signed an American pitcher from Taiwan, Carlos Mirabal, who saved 19 games for them on a one-year deal. Because he had a veteran agent who had players in Japan and knew the ropes, I would doubt he would leave Mirabal without the customary contractual protection agents give to their clients who are import players in Japan (see my story).

After his solid season, the Colorado Rockies came calling. They contacted MLB, who called their liaison in Japan, and were told, according to the story Mirabal heard, “He’s a reserved player who can’t leave until he’s been here nine years and is a free agent or is posted.”

While that is possible, it is about as likely as a midsummer snowstorm in Tokyo.

The most obvious explanation, is simply that NPB’s official lied to MLB, and Mirabal negotiated a new contract with the Fighters, who had they actually reserved him, could have just handed him a contract with a figure on it and told him to sign it or quit playing baseball.

Do the right thing

Japanese pro baseball is trying to open its season in a responsible way, but that does not mean it’s easy. This was made clear on Wednesday, when one of its 2019 MVPs, on one of the nation’s more popular teams tested positive.

Compared to the United States, Japan’s COVID0-19 response has been fairly apolitical, meaning disinformation has not been a huge problem here. But even still, this is a tricky issue here and something that does not bode well for American baseball this year.

Officials rushed in to declare that everything was normal, and a top epidemiologist concurred, but that doesn’t make it any less concerning about whether playing baseball in empty stadiums is still feasible.

Hayato Sakamoto, the Yomiuri Giants’ team captain and one of the faces of the Japanese game was reported to be asymptomatic. He and a teammate had PRC tests taken because the Giants asked everyone in the organization who comes in contact with players to have antibody tests taken.

The Giants were quick to point out that no one would have known about Sakamoto or Oshiro’s brushes with COVID-19 had they not undergone team-wide testing. Because epidemiology specialists ruled the players to be low risks to infect others, Nippon Professional Baseball, which has a long history of accommodating the Giants, said “Nothing to see here.”

That may be true. There is no indication that results are being fudged, but there are questions about how far teams are willing to go to make sure things are done in a safe manner. The PR-conscious Giants ordered everyone connected to the team who had come into contact with Sakamoto and Oshiro to undergo a PCR test within 24 hours.

But the Seibu Lions, who played the Giants on Tuesday at Tokyo Dome in a practice game in said essentially, “we were not told it would be necessary, so we are not having tests done.” The Lions and Giants were due to play another game on Wednesday but the Giants canceled it.

There’s the problem.

Japan has avoided doing rigorous testing, not because of a lack of capacity but because testing would increase the known number of infections. This has partly been a policy to put a good spin on the government’s handling of the situation although it most certainly started as a way of protecting the 2020 Tokyo Olympics Japan in which the nation had invested huge sums.

People with symptoms have been unable to get tests until they’re really, really sick. People have died at home because they were told to self-quarantine and stop bothering doctors and government COVID 19 hotline operators.

That’s the social picture. But there are other questions.

1. Why wait to retest?

Sakamoto, Oshiro and the two others were reportedly given the PCR tests on Tuesday evening after they played against the Lions. But the antibody tests, which are said to produce very quick results were supposedly completed by Sunday.

What took the Giants so long to get PCR tests for their four COVID-19 candidates? Did nobody at the team bother to find out about the antibody test results until after a game was played?

Whatever it was that allowed the two to play after they were believed to have been infected raises a flag. Teams are trying to establish new procedures and manuals so it just might have been a case of something falling through the cracks.

So nobody’s perfect, and certainly most people aren’t perfect the first time they try out a new system. But if the Giants are the team pushing hardest to have a system in place, and they dropped the ball, what does that say for everyone else? NPB is trying hard but it isn’t easy, and no one should be fooled into thinking it is.

Taiwan has managed it because of national preparation and quick aggressive responses, but Japan is not Taiwan, or even South Korea for that matter.

2. What about NPB’s strict guidelines?

NPB is in the middle of formulating strict quarantine and isolation guidelines that would keep anyone testing positive away from their teammates for a long time.

These sounded harsh but practical. Any player or team staff member testing positive would be required to stay home until two weeks after testing negative. The first news that those guidelines were too impractical to teams whose job is to win games first and foremost was when the Giants told people they expected Sakamoto and Oshiro to return as soon as they tested negative.

To that end the two were hospitalized so they can be tested daily. The guidelines, which were due out a few days ago, are apparently still being hammered out.

NPB’s secretary general Atsushi Ihara, a former Yomiuri employee, said nothing that was learned Wednesday was going to change peoples’ thinking about starting the season on June 19 as planned. It should be noted that Ihara was a chief actor in the plot that overthrew former commissioner Ryozo Kato–when Kato wouldn’t introduce a livelier ball the teams wanted, Ihara got a few others to conspire behind the commissioner’s back to change the ball without his knowledge.

The hidden game of baseball and MLB

All this points to is that despite NPB working hard to appear to lay all its cards on the table and be open about how it will attack the coronavirus issue, things are not as transparent as they seem.

Even in a country where the government is not a huge spreader of disinformation and COVID-19 has not become a political football, nothing is exactly as it seems. Owners have declined to talk about financial losses, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t a concern.

In the United States, where reopening is a political as well as an economic issue, it will be far harder to get straight answers to complicated questions. If anyone says it will be safe and feasible to play baseball even behind closed doors in the United States this year, there is an excellent chance they are talking out their ass.

Ramping up: 16 days to go?

Two positive tests for COVID-19 by Yomiuri Giants players derailed their team’s plan to play a practice game against the Seibu Lions at Tokyo Dome on Wednesday, the club announced according to the Mainichi Shimbun.

The news comes a day after Tokyo’s government issued an alert about the danger of a second wave of infections after 34 new confirmed cases were announced in the metropolis on Tuesday.

Sakamoto, Oshiro test positive

There were supposed to be six practice games on Wednesday as teams build up for Nippon Professional Baseball’s June 19 season openers, but Yomiuri Giants manager Tatsunori Hara abruptly called and end to the home team’s practice on Wednesday according to a source with the team.

“Everyone was running around like crazy,” the source said. “The Seibu Lions showed up later for their practice and there was nobody on the field and they didn’t know what was going on.”

In May, two days after June 19 was announced as Opening Day, the Giants said at least 220 people in the organization would get antibody blood tests for the coronavirus.

“Why don’t you test people before you announce when you’re going to start the season?” the source asked.

Actually, the Giants were the one team to do early testing, having 218 people in the organization take an antibody test. The four who tested positive then took the PCR test that produced the players’ positive results.

The show goes on

Due to the nature of the players’ test results, a top epidemiologist has declared they are not high risks to infect others due to the small amount of virus DNA produced by their tests. Dr. Mitsuo Kaku, who has been advising NPB on its health guidelines believes the players had been infected for quite some time.

Armed with that information, NPB secretary general Atsushi Ihara, said the infections changed nothing for the time being,

For their part, the Giants have ordered everyone connected with the first team to undergo a PCR test by Thursday morning. The Lions said there is no indication any of their players needed to be tested and the club is moving forward with its workouts and practice games as planned.

Guidelines

NPB is currently in the final stages of formalizing coronavirus guidelines that would reportedly force players testing positive such as Sakamoto and Oshiro to self-quarantine for two weeks after they produce negative test results. But with Opening Day now barely two weeks away, that and the added time it would take for them to regain fitness would — if applied to the Giants’ guys — keep them out of action until well after Opening Day.

The Giants, however, said they were keen to get the pair back as soon as they tested negative, which at first glance seemed to fly in the face of the guidelines. Having said that, the Giants as an organization have a long history of flouting guidelines when it suits them.

The SoftBank Hawks’ game at Kyocera Dome against the Orix Buffaloes started on schedule at 6 pm. While starting Wednesday afternoon, the Giants began having all their players and staff PCR tested.

Bour, Mejia continue to bop

In the four day games that did go ahead as scheduled, Justin Bour of the Hanshin Tigers and Alejandro Mejia of the Hiroshima Carp each homered for the second-straight day at Koshien Stadium.

Kosuke Fukudome also homered for the Tigers, which is kind of cool. I like it when a guy who is 43 and (almost) too old to be my son is in the game highlights.

shout out to Adam & Reggie

We are being inundated with news broadcasts and social media showing Americans’ varied responses to the systemic effects of white privilege that resulted in yet another avoidable death at the hands of law officers. The man’s name was George Floyd and his death would have been a footnote had it not been just the latest in a long line of outrages caught on video.

There has been outrage, anger and calls to protest the way America doles out opportunity and punishment to people who live there, citizen and immigrant alike. There have been suspicious voices and bad actors among those trying their best to portray the situation as honestly as they can.

And into that stepped pro ballplayer Adam Jones and Reginald Fugett. Their “Heckle Deez” podcast released Tuesday in response to America’s volatile situation was a work of compassion, an eloquent call for reason and understanding.

I recommend you listen to it because both Adam and Reggie have things to say that cut to the meaning of justice and love for one’s fellow man.

Here’s the podcast. I hope you give it a listen. There is value in keeping things simple and honest. Thanks for the effort guys.

Ramping up: 22 days to go

With Nippon Professional Baseball due to open its season behind closed doors on June 19, teams have begun playing intrasquad games to prepare, and will begin playing practice games against other teams from Tuesday.

Here’s the schedule for the practice games starting from June 2.

NPB preparing strict virus guidelines

As Opening Day rapidly approaches, NPB executives are hard at work developing countermeasures to promote the safety of not just players but those who work with them or at ballparks and those peoples’ families.

According to Kyodo News in Japanese, proposed measures for these guidelines include:

  • Quarantines for those testing positive that will last until 14 days AFTER they produce a negative test result.
  • Immediate isolation of those deemed to have come in close contacted with infected people.
  • 7 days self-quarantine if someone or a family member feels unwell — even if no tests are deemed necessary or tests come back negative.
  • Fixed 5-man umpiring crews.
  • Home plate umpires wearing surgical masks at all times.
  • An end to spitting, high-fives, hand shaking and “enjin” — the practice of huddling up before games and before a team’s at-bats when someone says something to get everyone fired up.
  • Media to be barred from the field and dugouts.
  • Media to observe social distancing in those areas they are allowed to occupy.
  • Media to no longer walk alongside players.

Fujinami sent down for tardiness

Hanshin Tigers pitcher Shintaro Fujinami has been demoted to the farm team for being late to practice, the Daily Sports reported Friday. It’s kind of an unusual story for two reasons. The first is that Japanese players tend to be punctual. The second is that the Tigers are one of those teams that do things like boot camp, where you are told to be 15 minutes early for everything.

Current Tigers scout Jeff Williams once talked about this custom known as “Tiger time.” Players would be told when to arrive, but because the team occupies two different parallel time universes, normal time and Tiger time, it got so confusing to Williams that he had to perpetually ask, “Is that real time or Tiger time.”

So it could have been that Fujinami was late because he was operating on the wrong clock. When he showed up after the expected time for a 10:30 am (time mode unknown) practice on Thursday, the pitcher was not permitted to take the field.

“This is not the first time for him,” manager Akihiro Yano said. “It’s up to Shintaro to make what he will of this. I made my decision based on the fact that being a responsible member of society comes before being a baseball player.”

The other confusing side to the story is that the Japanese word for late is often used in conjunction with players who are delayed in achieving game fitness. So when reading that Fujinami was late and knowing he was hospitalized after testing positive for the novel coronavirus in March, at first glance it seemed like a fitness issue, when maybe it was just a Tiger time issue.

Lotte’s Sasaki ‘not ready yet’: Iguchi

The Nikkan Sports reported Friday that fireballing Lotte Marines 18-year-old is still not close to being used in a game according to manager Tadahito Iguchi.

Sasaki, who twice hit 160 kilometers (99.4 miles) per hour in a simulated game on Tuesday, is not in line to be used during the Marines’ 12 practice games next month.

“He’s on track but I don’t think he’ll make those,” Iguchi said, sticking to the team’s roadmap not to overwork the lanky right-hander with the smooth fluid delivery.

Women’s league to start June 23

The Japan Women’s Baseball League announced Friday it will open its 2020 season on June 23 with a game between the Kyoto Flora and the Saitama Astria, four days after NPB pops the cork on its regular season. The league will adopt special rules in order to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Games will be limited to 90 minutes and seven innings for single games, and five innings when two games are played at the same venue.

The three-team circuit was founded in 2009 when, according to the league, there were five women’s hardball high school clubs in Japan. By last year there were 40. During that time, the number of registered women ballplayers has gone from 600 to 20,000.

NPB has not offered any concrete rule changes for its games other than discussing possibly changing its active roster limits.

Ramping up: 24 days to go

As Japan begins to ease out of its state of emergency, the way people talk about the coronavirus pandemic has changed as well.

Opening Day is now 24 days away, but it only took one day after announcing the June 19 start date to go from “Shucks. We are too busy to consider fans in the stands during this time of crisis” to “Hopefully, we’ll be able to have up to 5,000 per game at parks starting from July 10.”

Baseball addicts

And while Japanese society places some constraints on what teams say and do, that doesn’t mean Nippon Professional Baseball team owners don’t act like arrogant jerks.

The sudden reversal from “everything is about safety so we can’t be bothered to think about fans (income)” to “everything’s going to be normal soon so let’s make up for our losses” reminded me of my experience with a meth addict.

When put in charge of a trust overseeing a meth addict’s inheritance 12 years ago, no day was complete without an e-mail or phone call filled with threats, assorted insults and lies about he and another beneficiary were in total agreement of how I was screwing them both over.

When that phase of my work was done, and the addict’s inheritance was now in the hands of the beneficiary who had been his supposed ally, the addict was now my eternal ally in the cause against the other party’s reign of terror over HIS money.

What that has to do with NPB team owners is that this year has shown how they have adapted their language to suit the needs of their audience.

When Japan’s government was talking in March about Tokyo would be a safe host for the Summer Olympics in July 2020, the coronavirus was something that was going to be over soon, probably in April. NPB owners responded on March 12 by pushing Opening Day back from March 20 to April 10. After all, the government had said schools should be reopening by then so it should be no trouble holding baseball games.

Twelve days later, after the Olympics were put on ice, the owners did make a slight miscalculation, announcing that April 24 would be their new Opening Day — not because they knew something about the coronavirus that we didn’t but because that day would allow them to play 143 games including interleague, an all-star series, postseason league playoffs and a Japan Series.

The decision was ridiculed, rightly so. With teams still traveling around Japan playing practice games, three Hanshin Tigers tested positive after becoming exposed to the virus at a postgame dinner party at a friend’s home.

The owners learned their lesson and stopped announcing dates, saying they were now depending on government guidelines and the advice of experts. So while major league owners sounded like morons, speaking of seasons played in Grapefruit and Cactus league parks, NPB’s owners began to sound like adults.

That process continued as commissioner Atsushi Saito outlined the detailed plans that were being drawn up to keep players safe if and when the season did start. When Japan lifted the last states of emergency on May 25, Saito used all the right language.

And even when NPB secretary general Atsushi Ihara said Tuesday that fans could be in the park by July 10, he added, “But we will follow the government guidelines and proceed on the advice of experts.” This is something NPB has done, except in the early stages when the Central League owners were eager to push forward and ignore the advice of experts.

Not quite a game but Sasaki hits 160

Roki Sasaki has yet to pitch in a game since he turned pro with the Lotte Marines, but he pitched in a simulated game on Tuesday. Immediately after being taken deep, he responded with two-straight 160 kph deliveries and a three-pitch strikeout.

Here’s the video.

We’re talking about practice

NPB announced it’s practice game schedule for each team on Wednesday. You can find it HERE in my Japan Baseball Guide section.

Villanueva out

The Nikkan Sports has reported that former San Diego Padres third baseman Christian Villanueva has undergone an appendectomy according to an announcement by the Pacific League club.

With Opening Day set for June 19, it appears Villanueva, who played 73 games for the Central League’s Yomiuri Giants in 2019 will not be ready when the season starts.

Here’s Daisuke

Ramping up: 25 days to go

Less than one day after Nippon Professional Baseball announced its season will start on June 19, teams began hitting the gas, ramping up their workouts in order to be ready.

The Opening Day is actually the fourth one NPB has announced this year, but the other three were all: “This coronavirus thing should be done before it interrupts with business as usual.” As teams resumed playing intrasquad games on Tuesday, there was no sense that this is usual.

Orix played today at Kyocera Dome Osaka, giving viewers a chance to see Adam Jones in action.

Speaking of Orix. Here’s some video of one of my favorite pitchers, Buffaloes right-hander Yoshinobu Yamamoto.

Take me out to the ballpark

On Monday, NPB commissioner Atsushi Saito said teams weren’t even talking about when they might get fans into the park, but that silence didn’t last long, according to the Nikkan Sports.

“We are following government guidelines and will work within the restraints imposed by local governments,” NPB secretary general Atsushi Ihara said.

The season will start with games behind closed doors, and from July 10 at the earliest, teams might be permitted to allow as many as 5,000 fans. The current guidlines on event activities could expire by Aug. 1, but teams are going to limit crowds to half of their stadiums’ capacities.

The Hiroshima Carp have been allowing up to 500 fans a day into their workouts at Mazda Stadium.

Clapping for carers

One of the things the players decided to do when they resumed workouts was to perform a symbolic show of support to the frontline health workers that have enabled Japan to weather the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic and enabled NPB to even talk about opening the season.

Throughout the country, teams distributed videos of their players saluting healthcare workers. Here’s the Seibu Lions performing theirs at MetLife Dome just outside Tokyo. The guy leading them is the team’s new captain, shortstop Sosuke Genda.

Double trouble

Once upon a time, every Sunday during Japan’s baseball season meant between three and six doubleheaders. One of the few successes Japan’s players union ever had was cutting them out as burdensome. There haven’t been any in NPB since October 1998, when they were made necessary to make up rainouts so teams could finish their seasons.

On Sunday, the entire Yomiuri Giants roster will mass at Tokyo Dome for an intrasquad doubleheader, a sure sign that things are not normal this year.

Baseball’s Narcischism

Players in new countries often suffer a kind of culture shock when immersed in another country’s baseball culture. Latin American players sometimes comment on the lack of joy in Japan’s game, while many from North America find the endless meetings to discuss opponents’ tendencies and weaknesses mind-numbing.

Japanese describe western baseball as a game of speed and power. What sounds like praise is also an opaque slite that says Americans attempt to physically overpower baseball in a way that lacks the science, art and discipline revered in Japan.

Former Seibu Lions manager Haruki Ihara was fond of saying Japan had nothing to learn from MLB. This was an extreme example of the kind of misinformed nationalistic dogma that sports sometimes encourages, where it’s us versus them. Ihara is proud of the effort Japanese put into the game, and rightfully so. But to be dismissive of other styles and ways of thinking is to restrict what one can learn.

Baseball is parochial at heart. As much as sports can bring people together, it can also highlight minute differences in approaches, and to fans of the local game, that can mean a constant critique of the way others play. What are unwritten rules but an effort to assert that one set of behaviors is the “right way” to play the game and that conflicting views are “wrong?”

You see this as much off the field as on, where social Darwinism seems to steer much of the discussion of what baseball is towards those with the most influence and money.

Within any league you can name, because of owners’ wealth and their power to gift a region their brand of the game or take it elsewhere, they sometimes talk as if their businesses grant them a degree of ownership of what baseball is.

Owners and team executives are also sources for stories about policy, so it’s very easy for us in the media to be swayed by their point of view that baseball is a business. It’s one thing to explain why teams and leagues make decisions that adversely affect their customers, by using blackout rules or by manipulating service time. It’s another to argue that fans should accept that behavior.

Arguing that teams should manipulate service time to lengthen the time prospects need to reach arbitration is akin to arguing that political office holders should give sweetheart deals to big donors because “that’s how the system works.”

Although people make money off of baseball, it isn’t itself a business, it’s a game, and how it’s played, watched, and marketed as entertainment varies a lot. Just because Major League Baseball attracts more of the best players in the world, doesn’t make MLB synonymous with baseball or give its owners the power to decide what baseball is and isn’t even if they talk as if it does.

When people refer to “baseball” they so often mean “their baseball,” the game they grew up with and the way it is played by the teams they follow. For most modern American fans, social Darwinism is really part of their baseball, since MLB essentially lords it over its imperial colonies in the minor leagues. These people tend to see baseball as a kind of order of quality, with the quality of a league defined by its location in the world hierarchy.

With MLB nowhere near starting in the current coronavirus pandemic, Americans looked at other leagues and some desired to know where they fit in their stratified social Darwinism models. How good a league is CPBL? Is it better than Double-A? How about KBO? To answer that question, someone published a graphic that had MLB at the top followed in descending order by NPB, Triple-A, KBO, Double-A, CPBL, and so on down to rookie ball. I don’t remember if it had the Mexican league or not, which MLB has nominally labeled as “Triple-A.”

But Mexico, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan are different animals that aren’t organized by the same principles that govern talent within MLB’s imperial structure. In this regard, they are something like how minor league ball was in the United States, Canada, and Cuba before Branch Rickey and the Cardinals ruined it by spreading their tentacles across the continent much as the British Empire had around the globe in the preceding centuries.

By amassing resources, the Cardinals were able to compete at a high level and forced other teams to mimic them at a great cost to baseball across America. The creation of farm systems was a form of baseball eugenics to achieve efficiency at the cost of variety.

Pro leagues outside the majors’ imperial sphere aren’t “levels,” they are leagues, were like the majors, teams keep their top talent in order to win games. That makes their leagues vibrant sources of variation that enrich baseball as a whole. I believe baseball was better before MLB turned minor leagues and their teams into the baseball version of chicken houses, where poultry is grown to order in unhealthy conditions because they aren’t any part of a real ecosystem.

Baseball needs to grow and be part of places and cultures. And deciding where those cultures and their baseball ranks, as many baseball fans do around the world, is a vile, narcissistic exercise.

It’s not all about money

After meeting with health experts and his counterpart from pro soccer’s J-League, NPB commissioner Atsushi Saito then met baseball team executives. And though Saito did not announce a date for Opening Day — in keeping with Japan’s current pandemic view of “It will be over when it’s over” — he did say that could come as early as next Monday.

For the last 30 years or so, I’ve studied the differences between MLB and NPB and spent an inordinate amount of that time researching the cost and benefits of sacrifice bunts. But at no time has the difference between the two institutions been more clear than in the way they’ve handled the COVID-19 crisis. It makes me proud to know that my favorite team for all its flaws and all of NPB’s, plays here and is not associated with MLB.

Although NPB greeted the news of a pandemic with one new official Opening Day after another and MLB owners sounded like the adults in the room, saying “Let’s see how this plays out.” The roles quickly reversed. Since the end of March, when Japan’s Prime Minister realized that ignoring the virus while praying at the Olympic alter would not keep the games in Tokyo this summer, Japan has dealt with the issue in a fairly straight-forward manner.

In my homeland, it’s been different.

MLB owners: “By staying safe at home, you people are costing me money. Let’s talk about furloughs and pay cuts because I have a right to protect the return on MY investment.”

NPB owners: “We’ll beat this thing together. Stay safe. Stay ready.”

Frankly, I consider the words of NPB commissioners to be next to useless, but that was because of Saito’s predecessor, Katsuhiko Kumazaki. A former prosecutor, Kumazaki seemed to understand little about the game and really couldn’t give a straight answer to any question. But I’m becoming a fan of Saito, who seems to understand when to be precise and when to show his humanity.

I’ve written before about how Japanese businesses are constrained to some extent by the social demand that they show some concern for their employees. And though Japanese companies will happily tread over talented individualists while promoting incompetent flatterers, they still spend on “company vacations” for the entire staff. It’s more about appearance than real caring but that’s what is expected of them.

In baseball, teams run brutal practices and used to tolerate physical abuse by coaches, but pennant winners always get vacations in December — these days a paid trip to Hawaii for virtually everyone in the organization and their families. It’s expected. It’s part of the cost of doing business.

And while MLB owners are clearly using the pandemic to tighten the screws on labor and on the bargaining rights of amateurs, NPB owners have been behaving as expected, calmly, as if the players and their families actually mattered.

In the final question of Monday’s press conference, a reporter asked Saito if the owners had considered pay cuts to the players.

“At this time, that is something that we are not thinking about,” he said with a slight chuckle that certainly sounded like he was envisioning an MLB owner being grilled for the answer to that question.

WBC postponed again

The news out of the United States on Monday was that Major League Baseball has put the 2021 World Baseball Classic on hold due to the uncertainty regarding the coronavirus pandemic. Baseball America reported that MLB will look to schedule it in 2023.

No nation with the exception of perhaps Cuba places as much emphasis on the tournament as two-time champion Japan, but Nippon Professional Baseball was already interested in resolving the problem of a WBC next March, now that the Olympics have ostensibly been pushed into a 2021 time slot.

And though the WBC is a big deal in Japan, it is nothing compared to the Olympics, where Japan has repeatedly crashed and burned since pros were allowed to play in 2000. Being able to host the 2020 Olympics meant Japan could have another shot at a gold medal.

Japanese companies may line up to get a piece of the WBC sponsorship pie, but with a chance to play for an Olympic gold medal at home, NPB had to lay down a tarp to keep sponsors’ drool from staining the carpet.

Before the reality of the coronavirus was understood, NPB’s season was supposed to start on March 20, a week earlier than usual, take a three-week break for the Olympics, and finish two weeks late. When the International Olympic Committee informed Japan that there would be no Olympics this year, so that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe could announce that he alone made the decision for the good of the world, NPB instantly began squawking about how the 2021 WBC would be a hindrance to its Olympic preparations.

So while Japan loves its WBC, losing it in 2021 is no big deal, especially if it is only postponed until 2023 as seems possible.

A postponement, as the title suggests, would be the tournament’s second, Japan having won the inaugural 2006 event and the second edition in 2009 after the first tournament was delayed a year due to organizing hassles, many related to Japan.

Jim Small, then the President of MLB Japan was the point man in negotiating Japan’s participation, but NPB needed nudging, and frankly lacked the competence to act in a timely fashion.

There are some who believe a word from Sadaharu Oh, then the manager of the Daiei Hawks, pushed Japanese baseball into taking a chance on the idea.

Although Oh said it wasn’t his doing, he admitted to being a proponent of the tournament while many suits in NPB were against it.

“There are a lot of conservative people in the game, and they were against change,” Oh said in November 2017. “But to grow the game, you need to take some chances. Those people eventually saw the light.”

In addition to those conservative elements, there was also the problem that NPB lacked competency. Because English is a necessity for international business, it’s common for people of minimal competence to be promoted to positions of responsibility simply because of their English proficiency. There are a lot of people in Japanese baseball who are both extremely competent in their jobs and good at English, but that is not always the case.

In the case of the WBC, much of the heavy lifting was done by a skilled speaker of English who is something of a wild card. Although possessed with an excellent memory and knowledge of the game, he is prone to say things that are not true, and is really no administrator.

This became really clear in 2005. Although Japan agreed to take part in the first WBC, NPB’s union had not been notified of it. When asked about the delay, secretary general at the time, Kazuo Hasegawa, claimed his organization had only signed a document “expressing interest.” It would be no exaggeration to say that every regular baseball writer in Japan knew where that story originated from.

Less than a year after the union’s first strike had forced NPB into abandoning its contraction plans in the summer of 2004, the union was surprised to learn that the owners had agreed to take part in the WBC without consulting the players.

Although the tournament was managed jointly by MLB and its union, Small said that the organizers made a conscious decision not to reach out to Japan’s union despite NPB’s incompetence and lack of leadership that brought on the 2004 labor crisis.

“We didn’t want to overstep,” Small said during the contentious summer of 2005. “We didn’t want to step on NPB’s toes. But in retrospect, we probably should have brought them into the discussion earlier.”

True colors

There is no mistaking that when the Japanese baseball world considers MLB, it generally sees things worth emulating. Owners see the profits, fans see the physical strength and splendid new ballparks, players see the elite working conditions and competition. Yet, that envy, is often tinted by the kind of racial narcissism that sees Japan’s extra practice and the dedication to small ball as a kind of purity that can rarely be fathomed by outsiders.

Having said that, there are areas where Japan is way ahead of the United States, and professional baseball’s response to the coronavirus illuminates that gap.

Taking a cue from Donald Trump, MLB has been leaking a steady stream of mixed messages, while exploiting the downside of the coronavirus to incite division in the labor force — moving toward a demand that the players take pay cuts and get back to work despite the risks.

No players in NPB have had their salaries docked, all are expected to take part in practice while social distancing.

While the Japanese government was going full steam toward opening the Tokyo Olympics on July 24 until the IOC pulled the plug, NPB, too, was setting new Opening Days for when it would ostensibly be safe to play before crowds. Unlike the United States, no TV network in Japan was proclaiming concern for the virus a hoax, nor did the prime minister ever downplay it as a threat.

Since the Olympics were put in stasis, Japan declared a state of emergency, and NPB began reciting the advice of medical experts, saying it was too early to say when the season would start. Rather than a sense that the health crisis will be accompanied by Ameican-style class warfare, Japanese baseball has remained, well Japanese.

While Japan’s response to the coronavirus has been mediocre, it has been far better than the United States’ effort. And while people in both countries may be looking toward baseball for a sense of optimism, at least baseball in Japan is moving forward toward doing that exactly that — without the extra baggage that MLB is bringing to the table.