Sadaharu talks to reporters during the 2006 WBC

MLB needs Sadaharu Oh

Not because he was the greatest player in the history of Japanese baseball, but because when Japan’s owners in 2004 opted for a short view and wanted to turn their backs on the good of the game, Sadaharu Oh saw the big picture and encouraged them to do the right thing.

What follows is a story I never published because the two people telling it had divergent views of what happened. While there is disagreement about the role Oh played in making the first World Baseball Classic possible, I do not doubt he was instrumental.

Like today’s MLB owners, who are happily diminishing their product out of a belief it will have no negative effect on the return on investment, Japan’s owners in 2004 were in no mood to go along with an untried tournament that promised no financial reward, much to the consternation of MLB’s then Vice President for Asia, Jim Small.

Small’s MLB Japan digs at the time were located in the Imperial Hotel Tower, the same building that housed Nippon Professional Baseball’s commissioner’s office, but proximity didn’t mean the two sides were close on many issues. Small, who now works at MLB’s New York headquarters, loves Japan, Japan’s different kind of game, and wanted so much to elevate it to the level befitting the passion and dedication that is poured into it.

In 2004, Small was trying to get NPB on board for the first edition of the WBC so it could begin in 2005 but was making no headway. An executive with one of his best partners in Japan the Yomiuri Shimbun’s Sports Business Department, suggested he talk to Oh, who then managed the Daiei Hawks, but who had no involvement in the shape and scope of NPB’s business.

At the time, NPB’s owners were busy shoving a contraction plan down the fans and players’ throats after their approved merger of the Pacific League’s Orix BlueWave and Kintetsu Buffaloes was due to reduce the PL to a five-team league for 2005.

A lot of owners preferred one 10-team league and teams were jockeying for a merger, but the fans had grown accustomed to the two-league format installed in 1950, with six teams in each league since 1958, when the merger of the Mainichi Orions and Daiei Stars created the franchise that is now the Lotte Marines.

Japan’s owners were, with good reason, caught up in their rhetoric of baseball being unprofitable. The value of TV rights was dwindling, while the baseball businesses that rented their ballparks rather than owning them were, with the exception of the Yomiuri Giants, unprofitable. Parent companies, for the most part, wrote off their baseball business as advertising expenses, banking on the value of having their company name in the news on a daily basis.

The NPB economy was much like MLB’s before free agency: labor costs were kept far below market value, and because teams were not expected to turn serious profits, they were operated with lowered expectations. Front offices were mostly run by execs whose incompetence or arrogance made them expendable at the parent company but perfectly suited for baseball businesses that weren’t expected to turn a profit.

In that context, the WBC was a hard sell in Japan. But a WBC without Japan, whose corporations would end up providing the bulk of the advertising revenue that allowed it to function, was not going to fly.

In the summer of 2017, before he moved to New York, Small said that once he called Oh, however, the stonewalling ended in a heartbeat, that his main contacts at NPB were suddenly receptive.

“It changed overnight,” he said. “When Oh talks, people in Japan listen.”

Although what he said about Oh’s influence is true without a doubt, Oh said that wasn’t how it happened.

“It wasn’t me,” he said later that autumn.

“Baseball people could see that the WBC could be something to grow the game in Japan and around the world. Japanese baseball needed that. But business people didn’t see that. Instead, they saw unnecessary risk and expense.”

“Somebody needed to get them to see the big picture.”

I’m not saying the hard truth is in either of these stories, but rather somewhere in between.

Japan’s owners were busy hollowing out their product in the name of cutting costs while assuming the fans’ addiction to pro baseball guaranteed their business. Yet, the players and fans fought back and defeated the owners’ contraction scheme, while Oh and other influential people convinced NPB that it makes business sense to sell better baseball.

MLB owners, their franchises now delivering investment-grade returns, Rob Manfred saying harsh steps are needed in its labor deal to keep baseball viable, is 100 percent eyewash. What MLB needs is not a more owner-friendly labor deal, but a blueprint to expand and grow its market for long-term health and stability.

Instead, the owners have bought a bill of goods that says addicted fans will mindlessly consume everything MLB calls major league baseball in order to get their fix, so there is no need to worry about things like being competitive or having a better product.

The owners have bought a bill of goods that says addicted fans will mindlessly consume everything MLB calls major league baseball in order to get their fix, so there is no need to worry about things like being competitive or having a better product.

MLB has sold out to gambling interests while many teams have given up on competing, focusing instead on profits from real estate packages that come with their taxpayer-funded ballparks while cutting minor league and development costs to the bone and capping salaries.

Having sold out, the owners are now likely under pressure from their investors and partners to take a hard line against the players, whom they have come to see, not as their product, but as an obstacle to growth.

But what MLB’s owners badly need, more than a harsher salary cap in the form of a competitive balance tax or expanded playoffs or more revenue from gambling interests, is a good talking to. They need a Sadaharu Oh.

Oh would set them straight about the importance of feeding and caring for their core business, that the players are the game, and that once MLB stops being about the game, it will cease to be the viable business owners are now taking for granted.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.