Diverse baseball ecosystems

The interesting point at yesterday’s Yusei Kikuchi press conference was not so much that he spoke English, but that the Seattle Mariners are, as the Los Angels did a year ago, planning to bend over backwards to accommodate a Japanese pitcher and integrate him into the majors.

Twenty-six years ago, the Yomiuri Giants rammed free agency down the throats of Nippon Professional Baseball’s owners, threatening to pull out of the system if they didn’t permit veteran players to leave their teams and sign with the Giants as free agents.

The new rule was intended as a way for the Giants to lay their hands on the biggest name players, since it was understood without question both here and in the States that players in an inferior league would not be good enough to play in MLB. Within two years of course, Hideo Nomo proved that notion wrong.

Like the idea that Japanese couldn’t cut it in MLB, until very recently the prevailing attitude has been that everything in the big leagues is done better, executed better, better organized and better presented than it is in Japan, because, well… just because.

Anything that smacked of being different in Japan, from having Mondays off to its tiny six-team leagues, to its playoff system, to its free agent system was generally considered to be second class, not because these things were second class or but that because MLB was considered the pinnacle and divergence from the pinnacle is, by definition, a step down.

Thus, when I arrived at the 2014 winter meetings in San Diego and heard people talking about giving starting pitchers more rest, the way they did in Japan, or making a postseason that gives many more advantages to the regular season champions — the way they do in Japan, I was pretty much in shock.

A lot of things have changed over the 26 years I’ve been writing about Japanese baseball. Although there have always been guys who came here and embraced the unique things NPB had to offer, for many former big leaguers it was not a happy stage in their careers — because it signified a one-way ticket from the majors.

Now, guys are lining up to come to Japan so that they can learn and get better as ballplayers. They can either raise their profile among major league teams as many other players have recently done, or build fulfilling careers here. Many stay because it is a good thing to be paid well and respected, as they make adjustments to win meaningful games and pennants in front of enthusiastic and vibrant crowds.

I remember cracking open Bill James’ abstracts in the early 1980s and reading about how the minor leagues used to be more than farm systems. James suggested they were more like Japanese ball, and I think that’s a valid comparison. Because Japanese ball is independent and springs from a different culture with different thinking about the game, in a country where many parts of the pro baseball puzzle are shaped differently, it represents an alternative baseball gene pool.

Shohei Ohtani is who he is because of this difference, not because two-way players are possible in Japan, but because two-way players have always been born out of necessity.

Speaking to the wonderful Bob Kendrick, the president of the Negro League Baseball Museum, last month, he explained that two-way players were common in the negro leagues because the teams’ small rosters demanded innovation.

Babe Ruth became a two-way player because the Red Sox were short on outfielders after the start of World War I. Shohei Ohtani was encouraged to be a two-way player as a lure by Nippon Ham Fighters manager Hideki Kuriyama to keep him from signing as a one-way pitcher with a big league club.

That only happened because Japanese baseball is separate and independent. Whether Ohtani’s game is a sideshow or a look at the future remains to be seen, but it is different, and the sentiment that he should be made to chose one or another because “nobody else gets to choose” smacks of old-fart grumbling. Sorry Bill.

Anyway, to get back to Kikuchi, the idea that bending the common practice in order to help a good pitcher assimilate might be a bad thing or it might be a good thing. Nobody knows. Recognizing that Japanese players come out of a different environment and might contribute a lot more with some tinkering to common practices might lead to nothing. But they also might lead to something — because of what is learned in the process.

You expect players coming from other contexts to treat their teammates and the game with respect, but that doesn’t mean you hammer them into a shape that suits the old style and does no one any good. Japanese baseball and Korean Baseball are going to change and evolve, converge with MLB and diverge and that diversity enriches the world’s game.

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