Matt Winters is a professional scout for the Nippon Ham Fighters, with whom he played from 1990 to 1994.
A first-round pick of the New York Yankees, Winters played for Triple-A Columbus from 1983 to 1985. During that time he was a teammate of future American League sluggers Don Mattingly and Steve Balboni and outhit both of them.
On Monday, March 15, player agent Don Nomura joined jballallen.com subscribers for a live chat on the freeing of Hideo Nomo, the business of Japanese baseball, his stepfather, baseball legend Katsuya Nomura and the differences between the way baseball is seen in Japan and in the States.
The freeing of Hideo Nomo
In 1994, Japanese baseball had just instituted free agency under pressure from the most powerful of its 12 teams, the Yomiuri Giants, who like most baseball people in Japan and the majors inferred a kind of social Darwinist vision of baseball: that because MLB was a tougher league, Japanese players were inferior.
Hideo Nomo disproved that belief big time, and Don Nomura was instrumental in giving him the opportunity to play in the States against the wishes of his team, the Pacific League’s Kintetsu Buffaloes. It did, however, come at a cost Nomura said he was unprepared for.
Nomura tells of how he became connected with Hideo Nomo, Jean Afterman, and the rest of the saga.
One of the side issues was that Katsuya Nomura, Don’s stepfather was then managing the Central League’s Yakult Swallows, and Don’s effort to free Nomo meant that amid the firestorm from the media, the elder Nomura was forced to take a public stand, which Don said was particularly ironic given Katsuya’s love of American baseball.
The realities of Japanese pro baseball
Although there is tremendous quality in Japan’s game thanks to the efforts of players and coaches, domestic and imported, it has some rules that Nomura is not a fan of. The biggest are: a) Japan’s limit on four imported players in a game, and b) it’s reserve system that allows a team to keep a player contract for however many years it takes him to achieve seven-plus years of first-team service time.
When asked about whether it might be a tough sell to have a team of imports in Japan, Nomura said, “What are we looking at? A baseball game or the color of the skin?”
Here’s Nomura on what he would do if he were put in charge of Nippon Professional Baseball.
Japanese baseball is full of potential
One of the ironies of Nippon Professional Baseball is that it is a magnificent structure, but one whose rules have more holes in them than Albert Hall. Hideo Nomo was able to make his getaway because nobody assumed a player would.
Japan’s contract structure allows any player, amateur or professional, who knows the rules to negotiate the most remarkable deals with the team that wants to sign him. This is a massive difference from how it is in MLB. There — even international professionals — who are defined as amateurs by MLB and its players union — can only be guaranteed a minimum minor league contract and a signing bonus that is part of a team’s capped maximum.
What Japanese amateurs need to know
Asked what he thought Japan’s players union could do for the game, Nomura said, “Educate the players.”
What about international amateurs
Although MLB scouts keep tabs on Japanese amateurs they might want to recruit, NPB teams spend virtually no energy on scouring the United States, Canada, Latin America and the Caribbean for amateur players who might turn pro in Japan.
However, a number of people have suggested that Japan may be the best place in the world for an amateur ballplayer to turn pro, not only from the living conditions, the quality of play and coaching but also from the contractual possibilities Japan offers that MLB teams cannot match.
Nomura said it was a huge opportunity, and that Japan was failing badly to take advantage of it.
The most important lesson
When Katsuya Nomura died a year ago, Nomura wrote that his stepfather taught him more lessons than he could count, the biggest of which, Don said, was not about baseball.