Tag Archives: Kintetsu Buffaloes

Baseball diversity matters

This winter, as Major League Baseball crosses out everything on its balance sheet that smacks of dead weight in an oligarchic pursuit of higher return on investment has triggered a sense of nostalgia for Japan’s summer of 2004, when Japan’s owners got the bit between their teeth and did their best to euthanize its less successful Pacific League.

That spring, one of the PL’s founding ownership groups, Osaka’s Kintetsu Railroad, announced it was looking to sell its team. The prospect of a weak five-team PL caused owners to scramble for solutions. The first was a merger between the league’s two Kansai clubs, with the Orix BlueWave absorbing Kintetsu to become the Orix Buffaloes.

But as owners began realizing that 10 clubs was a more sustainable number than 11, teams began looking around for merger partners, while fans and players fretted about an end to the two-league rivalry that had been one of the engines for pro baseball’s popularity.

It didn’t happen because the players went on strike and fans supported them, culminating in a settlement that preserved a six-team PL, and established interleague play.

It was a vastly more complex issue, but the owners took the stance that the game belonged to them, not the fans and certainly not the players, and that the PL was a failed experiment that should be eliminated. Although the death of the PL would have ended the CL as well, nobody saw it like that. It was 100 percent about, “Let’s cut out the inefficiencies.”

That was 16 years ago, and the league that was then treated as a failed experiment is now beating the established “we know how to operate baseball business” league like a drum. The PL is propelling Japanese baseball into the future because, in the summer of 2004, the fans and players saved it. Those fans and players saved Japanese pro baseball from the short-sighted arrogant oligarchic desire to marginalize the weak.

Deciding the value of an organization or group or community based on a straight-line spread sheet analysis of short-term costs ignores so much. Eliminating or marginalizing those who don’t figure in today’s profits, especially when they do things differently, means eliminating diversity from the system. It is the hubris of believing an algorithm creates wisdom.

It is so easy to see those who are different and less profitable as drains on a system. But eliminating or marginalizing baseball leagues because they don’t serve your immediate goals means eliminating their contributions you can’t see or don’t want to see because it conflicts with your algorithm or your belief that you are better than they are.

Baseball leagues matter.

Liar’s poker

The course of relations between NPB and MLB has not always been smooth, and after 1995 — when Major League Baseball granted Hideo Nomo free agency because Nippon Professional Baseball’s organizing document is an obsolete mess that didn’t prohibit him from going.

To keep things civil, the two bodies have a document known in all its glory as the “Agreement between the Office of the Commissioner of Baseball and the Office of the Commissioner of Nippon Professional Baseball.”

Japan’s governing document, the Pro Baseball Agreement was based on the fallacy that Japanese players were inherently inferior to major leaguers. It did not prevent voluntarily retired NPB players from contracting with pro clubs overseas. The thinking was, if Japanese players are not good enough for MLB in the first place, what chance would a retired player have of making a roster?

Nomo moved to the majors by threatening to retire if the Kintetsu Buffaloes declined to meet his outrageous contract demands. They said, “No way,” forwarded his retirement application, and before you could say “sayonara,” he was a major league free agent.

I mention this, because it was followed by some spiteful lies from an NPB official that kept MLB teams from pursuing players in Japan.


In 1996, when Tadahito Iguchi was a star of Japan’s Atlanta Olympic team, and was seen as a potential candidate to play in MLB, one team filed the paperwork necessary to make sure he was available.

Mind you, Iguchi was then playing for Aoyama Gakuin University, and it really wasn’t necessary for an MLB team to get NPB’s permission, but one scout said, he did, and was told Iguchi was off limits, period.

To be sure, MLB had a kind of gentleman’s agreement to only sign players who had been passed over in NPB’s draft, but it was not a rule. But NPB, still smarting from the fact that MLB followed NPB’s rules when it granted Nomo free agency, simply lied and it took Iguchi another nine years before he would make his MLB debut with the Chicago White Sox.


In order to prevent another player from retiring in order to become a free agent in the States, NPB patched that hole in its leaky rule structure. Unfortunately, the person in charge of communicating with MLB, neglected one thing, Article 14 of the agreement.

“If either party to this Agreement has a material change in its reserve rules or any other rule identified in this Agreement, that party shall immediately notify the other party of any such change, and the other party shall have the right to seek renegotiation of and/or termination
of this Agreement upon ten (l0) days’ written notice.”

Two years passed without incident, until a speedy power-hitting 21-year-old decided he would be better off in the majors than under the stifling long-term deal he’d signed with the Hiroshima Carp as a 16-year-old in the Dominican Republic.

With help from agent Don Nomura and Jean Afterman, Alfonso Soriano announced his retirement from baseball, and, as they said, “did a Nomo.” When NPB pointed to its rules, MLB pointed to the lack of notice from NPB about changing the rules.

If NPB and the league executives were mad after Nomo, the Soriano screw-up left them steaming.

More lies

The next documented incident occurred in 2000. That year, the Nippon Ham Fighters signed an American pitcher from Taiwan, Carlos Mirabal, who saved 19 games for them on a one-year deal. Because he had a veteran agent who had players in Japan and knew the ropes, I would doubt he would leave Mirabal without the customary contractual protection agents give to their clients who are import players in Japan (see my story).

After his solid season, the Colorado Rockies came calling. They contacted MLB, who called their liaison in Japan, and were told, according to the story Mirabal heard, “He’s a reserved player who can’t leave until he’s been here nine years and is a free agent or is posted.”

While that is possible, it is about as likely as a midsummer snowstorm in Tokyo.

The most obvious explanation, is simply that NPB’s official lied to MLB, and Mirabal negotiated a new contract with the Fighters, who had they actually reserved him, could have just handed him a contract with a figure on it and told him to sign it or quit playing baseball.