The timing couldn’t have been worse — unless one ascribes to the idea that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. The Lotte Marines’ home interleague series with the Yomiuri Giants in early June 2006 coincided with a meeting of Lotte’s amateur scouts less than five months ahead of NPB’s amateur draft.
No more cheating
At the scouts meeting, Valentine wanted to make an amateur lefty, believed to be Kinki University’s Kenji Otonari, a target for the upcoming draft after seeing video of him. When told the player would cost more than Lotte could budget for, Valentine, who could not have been ignorant of the realities, said he asked why that was the case if signing bonuses as well as salaries and incentive packages for first year players were capped so that no new amateur signing could cost a team more than around $1.5 million. The answer was that the pitcher in question would likely cost an additional $5 million to sign because of systems in place since 2003 to allow elite corporate league and university players to choose the teams they wanted to sign with.
Valentine began an impromptu press conference earlier than usual in the home dugout at Chiba Marine Stadium. He explained his experience from the scouts’ conference, and reminded the reporters that NPB teams had taken a pledge in June 2005 to stop cheating. Because Japan’s most influential team was in town, the assembled crowd was about twice its normal size.
“If they had to take a pledge to stop cheating, doesn’t that imply that they were cheating before?” he asked the 20 or so reporters on hand to hear him vent.
If his team paid the maximum allowable on the lefty, Valentine asked, how could the pitcher be unattainable? His conclusion was that other clubs were breaking the rules.
There’s cheating and then there’s cheating
With the Giants entourage set to arrive shortly at the ballpark, a firestorm was set to explode. Hidetoshi Kiyotake, the Giants’ official proxy to NPB was on hand to blast Valentine’s assertion that gambling was going on at the casino – saying he had no proof anyone was “cheating.”
In one sense, Kiyotake was right, since Valentine was complaining about the under-the-table payments to drafted players, something that was not technically cheating — only because NPB’s agreement to limit signing bonuses had never been formalized as a rule in Japan’s pro baseball charter.
Valentine, too, had been right, however. When teams had vowed to stop payments in violation of the rules, they were referring to paying amateurs, a problem that had erupted in 2004.
In August of that year, Yomiuri Shimbun president and iconic blowhard Tsuneo Watanabe was forced to relinquish his role as Giants owner over the club’s payments to Meiji University pitcher Yasuhiro Ichiba came to light. On Aug. 13, 2004, the team announced it had paid Ichiba roughly 2 million yen ($18,000) in cash for “meal money, transportation expenses and pocket money” over a seven-month period. Two other clubs, the Yokohama BayStars and Hanshin Tigers, admitted to paying the pitcher 600,000 yen ($5,400) and 250,000 yen ($2,250), respectively.
The Giants having been caught red-handed, it was no surprise Kiyotake was particularly sensitive to the issue of “cheating” within NPB.
Valentine was forced by his team to issue an apology, something that frequently happens in Japan when enough influential people complain about someone telling inconvenient truths – an act often described as “causing confusion.”
Vindication, Part 1
But if the lords of NPB thought Valentine’s complaints were trouble, they were completely unprepared when the acting owner of the Seibu Lions decided baseball could regain the public trust by coming clean. Hidekazu Ota, revealed on March 9, 2007 that the team’s previous acting owner – longtime Lions executive Yoshio Hoshino – had informed him the team had been making payments to two amateur players, including roughly 13 million yen ($117,000) to Tokyo Gas lefty Yuta Kimura under the heading of “nutritional expenses.”
The Lions had been in turmoil since longtime owner Yoshiaki Tsutsumi, once described as the world’s wealthiest man, had quit suddenly in October 2004 prior to his indictment on securities fraud. Ota, who had long been involved in amateur baseball was determined to do the right thing and commissioned an outside panel of experts to discover past misdeeds so he could put the Lions’ house in order.
The Lions news spurred calls from amateur federations as well as the head of the players union, Shinya Miyamoto, to abolish the “kibowaku” system that allowed elite corporate league and university players to play for the team of their choice. The Giants stance, as presented by Kiyotake, was that abolishing the system would encourage Japan’s elite amateurs to skip NPB and sign directly with major league clubs. But within weeks of Ota’s bombshell, the system was history as NPB officially scrapped it.
In early April, the bad news continued as Ota’s investigators revealed the Lions had in the past paid out cash to amateur managers over a period spanning 27 years and that five additional amateurs had received a total of 61.6 million yen ($655,000) prior to the summer of 2005.
The report did not name the amateur players involved, but Lions manager Tsutomu Ito seemed to age rapidly that spring and summer. An elite high school catcher, Ito quit school in Kumamoto Prefecture and moved far from his home to attend night school in Tokorozawa, Saitama Prefecture, where he was kept out of sight during the day as a team employee until Seibu drafted him unopposed in the first round of the 1981 draft.
The Lions’ bold efforts to shed light on the dark recesses of NPB’s business practices were met with abuse and disdain. The Seibu investigators’ report suggested that the Lions practices were common in NPB, which brought out a chorus of denials from the usual suspects. The club was harshly criticized by commissioner Yasuchika Negoro, fined and prohibited from selecting players in the first four rounds of that autumn’s high school draft.
That spring, Valentine asked, “They made a big production out of my needing to apology. Don’t you think that given the circumstances, someone owes me one?”
Vindication, Part 2: Kiyotake’s turn
Although Valentine was forced out in a 2009 coup worthy of the movie “Major League,” Kiyotake proved once again what the statements of Yomiuri officials were worth.
After declaring the Giants squeaky clean and acting outrage that investigators suggested shady practices were routine in NPB, he made the mistake of challenging still-formidable former owner Watanabe in a power struggle and lost.
Soon after he was forced out of the Yomiuri organization, Yomiuri’s biggest newspaper rival, the Asahi Shimbun, began publishing details about payments in excess of the 100 million signing bonus limits agreed to by NPB teams for rookies.
The details, which were never denied by the Giants, said the team had paid a total of 3.6 billion yen ($32 million) in signing bonuses during a period when NPB clubs had agreed not to pay more than 100 million yen per player.