Category Archives: Baseball

Junichi Tazawa & culture of denial

Boston Red Sox reliever Junichi Tazawa is hardly a man without a country, but he is a man without a national team to play for. Although he would have been a great asset for Samurai Japan in the 2013 World Baseball classic, the right-hander was systematically excluded — ostensibly because he exercised his right to choose for whom he works.

How this happened remains a mystery, since no one is claiming credit or shouldering the responsibility.

In an August interview, legendary home run-hitter and 2006 Japan manager Sadaharu Oh said it was perfectly understandable that Japan should spite the Red Sox reliever.  As the ace pitcher of Japan Energy’s corporate club, Tazawa had two choices, freedom to choose a major league club or nine years of indentured servitude to whatever Nippon Professional Baseball team drafted him and offered him the maximum allowable rookie package of a $1.5 million signing bonus and a first-year salary of $150,000.

He broke no rules in choosing to begin his pro career in the United States. Yet, he is now being punished for breaking NPB’s wish that all Japanese amateur stars play first in NPB.

“The baseball world has made up its mind,” Samurai Japan manager Hiroki Kokubo told me in August, the day after I spoke to Oh. “I can’t pick him.”

Japan’s ‘baseball world’ is an ambiguous term for the players, teams and organising bodies and is the perfect front for denial. In December 2012, former commissioner Ryozo Kato said, “I think it was Oh and (then Japan manager Koji) Yamamoto who decided from the first that Tazawa would not play.” Oh said he thought the exclusion was Kato’s decision.

Certainly, Tazawa was never ever considered. Both 2013 head coach Masataka Nashida and No. 2 pitching coach Tsuyoshi Yoda said they’d have loved to have him along in 2013, but told me his name was never offered as a candidate by Yamamoto. When I asked the skipper about it, Yamamoto said, “Nobody here knows Tazawa, because he didn’t play in NPB. Lacking that common experience would make his presence awkward.”

Japan’s spiteful owners — who have an unofficial agreement to ban Tazawa from playing in NPB for up to three years should he desire to play here — are the likely suspects, but an  NPB administrator recently pulled me aside to say it was the amateur federation’s pressure that has made Tazawa untouchable.

The Japan Baseball Federation  has yet to respond to requests to discuss the issue. Oh admitted that any policy that would banish a national star was childish and hoped in the future Japanese ball would be mature enough to deal positively with such issues but added a kicker, “the national team belongs to (Japanese) pro baseball,  you don’t see amateurs. Tazawa skipped pro baseball so it makes sense that he should be excluded.”

This is the root of the problem.

Because the national team needs Japan’s pros, it can’t do without NPB, who then drape their stars in Japan’s national flag, the Hinomaru. But the goal of winning for Japan is subordinated to the goals of an ambiguous “baseball world” — one of which is to ostracise Tazawa for his temerity.

So the national federation outsources the team to NPB and no one is prepared to either admit that Tazawa is being banned or willing to accept responsibility for it.

None of this should surprise people familiar with Japan,  whose current prime minister is zealously air-brushing over the more detestable acts carried out in Japan’s name by civilians and soldiers during the second world war.  “There is no evidence,” can be interpreted as, “There is no evidence we want to evaluate.”

No one denies that atrocity and evil are the companions of warfare. When pressed, Abe relies on that maxim to say, Japan was no worse than anyone else, therefore Japan is innocent rather than equally guilty. And since Japan is innocent, we can just move forward and ignore it.

There is a similarity between how the ill-defined “baseball world” operates and the way Japan prosecuted its war effort 65 years or so ago. Japan’s military doctrine, particularly in the Imperial Army was top-heavy, with its main emphasis on front-line fighting spirit rather than command, control or logistics.  Instil the proper fighting spirit, and results will follow. Unfortunately, the fighting spirit among commanders of Imperial Army’s units in China and Manchuria propelled Japan into a war it didn’t plan.

Rather than seek to stabilise the situation, the Japanese government condoned the acts by doing nothing. In a sense, Japan didn’t start it’s war in China. It merely placed soldiers on the continent and allowed things to run their course. When it came to looting China of goods in order to prosecute an ever expanding war, Japan enlisted the aid of an organized crime figure, Yoshio Kodama, who supplied Japan and himself from China’s riches.

A similar story, which is now big news in Japan, surrounds the military’s use of the euphemistically called “comfort women,” women who were used by the military as sexual servants. To some degree, this was an extension of Japan’s custom of human trafficking. It was not uncommon in Japan for families to try an alleviate debt by selling daughters to brokers.

The current debate is not that it never occurred, but whether the government was responsible and to the degree that the women were held against their will and not compensated. Saying the government was not responsible is the same as saying Japan was not responsible for  waging war against China because it was not government policy to start the war in the first place. The large body of testimony and evidence can be disputed, but regardless how bad it might have been, everybody else did it and it wasn’t the government’s fault.

Of course, there is nothing unique in this unwillingness to face inconvenient evidence. The United States was eagerly prosecuting Japanese war criminals, such as Kodama, until the communists won China’s civil war. At that point, what the U.S. needed was not a left-leaning wobbly Japan suffering from democratic growing pains, but a strong, anti-communist thug as an ally. People like Kodama suddenly became cherished allies and all was forgiven.

The idea that anything unpleasant can be swept under the carpet, called something else, ignored and lied about is pretty common around the world, although Japan may be the ultimate master of the art.

Blue is the new red

On Thursday, Dec. 18, Chunichi Dragons center fielder Yohei Oshima caved in and agreed to a contract for ¥74 million for the 2015 season in the third meeting in which the team failed to budge from their original offer.

The 29-year-old is an excellent fielder, whose offensive numbers are diminished by playing at Nagoya Dome.  A year ago, with Oshima coming off an injury-affected season that saw him bat just .248, Chunichi gave him the largest pay cut they could without giving him the option of turning it down in favor of becoming a free agent. His new salary is ¥1 million shy of his deal for the 2013 season.

He said he considered going to arbitration but his wife talked him out of it. Arbitration in Japan is not a one-way street. In the past, the arbitrators have done a fair job of trying to see when a player is underpaid compared to his peers.

So the question is who are his most comparable peers and what are they paid?

Based on what they did in 2014, the most similar players in offensive and defensive value (using Win Shares)  were, with their salaries this past season:

Year League Player Age Batting WS Fielding WS Raw WS Total Salary
2014 CL Takayuki Kajitani 25 13.15 3.24 16.39 ¥23,000,000
2014 PL Yuya Hasegawa 29 12.59 3.11 15.70 ¥200,000,000
2014 CL Ryosuke Hirata 26 11.74 3.89 15.63 ¥35,000,000
2014 CL Yohei Oshima 28 11.33 3.98 15.32 ¥56,250,000
2014 PL Shogo Akiyama 26 12.03 3.25 15.28 ¥65,000,000
2014 PL Nobuhiro Matsuda 31 11.54 3.01 14.55 ¥200,000,000
2014 CL Shingo Kawabata 26 11.45 3.10 14.55 ¥56,000,000

If you can’t see this table, it’s also here:

Kajitani’s salary was doubled to ¥46 million for next year after leading the CL in stolen bases. Kawabata got a raise to ¥85 million. Hirata signed for a ¥12 million raise at ¥47 million, Akiyama took a ¥3 million pay cut, Matsuda  remained at ¥200 million for the 2nd year of his 2-year-deal after being hurt for much of 2014, while Hasegawa has yet to sign.

All in all, Oshima is pretty much on a par with his peers — as long as you don’t include Softbank or Yomiuri, who are pretty liberal with the cash.

The Dragons are going to use whatever excuse they can to cut your salary, so you better hit for average. As for the title, I suppose some of you got it, since the red-cladHiroshima Carp are famous for their tight-fisted dealings with their players. The Dragons, whose parent company is a newspaper, the Chunichi Shinbun, have been cutting costs like crazy the past two seasons.

Hiroshima center fielder Yoshihiro Maru was the CL’s best outfielder last season and just saw his pay increase from ¥51 million to ¥90 million. If he played for Yomiuri, he’d be making at least as much as Giants center fielder Hisayoshi Chono (¥180 million), who’s not nearly as good.