Tag Archives: MLB

It’s hard, but stop whining

If you’re a fan of major league baseball, you have a right to be upset that greedy owners are holding you and the game you love in contempt, while a deadly virus makes a mockery of many things you thought of as normal and threatens lives and livelihoods. Things have turned upside down. I get it. I feel your pain and your anger.

That being said, it looks like you will have your baseball in one form or another. And it’s about goddamn time you appreciate that part of it and stop complaining about the package it’s coming in.

I know that’s hard, but stop whining just because it’s not the baseball you’re used to.

Sure, there are concerns. We want the players and coaches and people working around them in the game to all be safe. And I don’t just mean the people we pay to see but the people we don’t, the clubhouse managers, cooks, security guards, batboys and umpires.

A lot of people are affected by the coronavirus and the callous way the owners have treated them and everyone concerned with baseball including the fans is worthy of a serious karmic kick in the privates.

I also get that a huge chunk of our love of baseball is a stable foundation, a predictable format of a certain number of games followed by a postseason. Twitter is now awash with serious people questioning whether a shortened season will be legitimate, and I suppose that’s a valid question in an era where the phrase “small sample size” is as common a feature in a baseball broadcast as “clutch performer.” Baseball’s grand moments are truly grand because they stand out from a long-established pattern. Those moments, those special seasons become musical riffs we hear in our memory that have the power to take our breath away years later.

We worry that losing the commonality of a long grinding regular season will deprive us of the joy of placing that year’s accomplishments neatly on the shelf next to the others in our history and the knowledge that it is just one more completed piece of an orderly baseball universe.

People whose opinions I thrive on are upset that awards handed out for a 50-game season will lack luster, and I don’t blame them. But if we expect players to compete, if that’s what we’re really here for, the human reach and struggle to win and overcome adversity, then hell yes, the awards have meaning. OK, so we won’t learn as much about how good a team is over 162 games. Spare us all the lectures. We know it in our hearts.

All my life, I’ve listened to people say the true test of greatness is a 162-game season only to turn around in October and say exactly the same thing about a seven-game world series. The same people often utter both and are completely unconcerned with the apparent contradiction. We love both, the long grind and the final decision. One is a test, the other a crapshoot. But let’s face it, who doesn’t like a game of chance now and then.

If you like, boycott this unfamiliar experiment because it’s a contrivance of the greedy bastards who couldn’t give two shakes for either the beauty of the game, the artisans who produce it, or the human beings who invest their time and money into it. The game would be so much better run by people who loved baseball as much as they love guaranteed returns on investments.

Do what you can to never give the owners a penny. They don’t deserve you. Encourage the people who play and teach the game to quit MLB and form a better union. But don’t complain about having baseball.

If any of you look at this season and say “That’s not baseball,” then you’re getting on the same viral cruise ship with the morons who say baseball in Japan or in Korea or Taiwan is not baseball because it’s different — because it’s different from what they’re accustomed to.

But having seen baseball through Japanese lenses for more years than I like to say, seeing something familiar from a different perspective teaches you as much about where you’ve been as about where you are.

So fight for change, support the players and human rights and abandon the charlatans who run MLB, but treasure this season for what it is, a special riff in baseball’s musical universe. I guarantee you’ll never forget it.

NPB will open without service-time agreement

A long time ago, in a baseball-loving nation far, far away there were two leagues where the owners were not greedy extortionists bent on sucking all the short-term profits out of the game while leveraging their monopoly status to abscond with local taxpayers money and land.

In that nation, labor and management believed in peace, harmony, loyalty, and duty as stewards of the game. In that land, the owners never collude with the players union to hamstring amateurs’ bargaining power, and don’t have draft slot allotments or signing bonus pools, minor leaguers on starvation wages or labor strife.

I’d tell you that was Japan and the leagues were the Central and Pacific, but we all know that such a place only exists in fiction. While compared to MLB’s return-on-investment real-estate-development barons, Japan’s owners appear downright humanistic, and labor strife is (except for four dates erased from the 2004 season by Japan’s only players strike) is all but unheard of.

There were no pay cuts by owners, because the rule structure didn’t permit it, and on Monday, four days away from Opening Day on June 19, the players union said it will go into the season without a service-time agreement in place. Like the owners inability to cut salaries because of the law and their rules, the players’ inaction likely has nothing to do with altruism.

By going into the season without an agreement, the union is on the verge of giving owners an extra year of team control in addition to the seven-to-nine they already have. Essentially, players need 145 days on the first-team roster in order to qualify for one year of service time. But this year’s 120-game schedule will span just 151 days, meaning anyone deactivated for anything other than an injury, will not get a full year.

A typical 143-game season takes place over a span of 190 days, and the players want the rate for service time increased so that one game counts as more. They are also concerned about players making less than the first-team minimum of 16 million yen. These players get pro rated up to the minimum, but with fewer games, a player appearing in all 120 games might not come close to the minimum.

So the players are worried that if they go into the season without an agreement, the owners will, say thank you very much for your understanding then tell them say no one forced them to agree to terms favorable to the owners.

The players are going to do it, however, because they are unaccustomed to fighting for their rights. On one level there is a desire to play, and on another level, there’s a fear of appearing disloyal to the fans. But the real bottom line is that labor rights, although engraved in Japan’s constitution, are frequently ignored. Japanese court decisions are overwhelmingly pro-business, and the players have done little to maneuver themselves into a position of leverage.

The union fought the teams’ ability to control players’ image rights and lost, with the judges’ decision boiling down to, “Well the owners have a lot of expertise in selling things, so let’s just let them keep managing these things shall, we.” That decision was made despite the owners’ experience in managing licensing rights as waiting for people to throw them money and not always messing up the deal.

Labor negotiations in Japan make the MLB-MLBPA talks seem positively progress and engaging. More often they look like this:

Labor: “We’d like better raises, given all we’ve done.”

Management: “So would I. Our policy is not to give raises.”

This process is repeated forever until the labor negotiators, who are not paid for their time, get worn down by the sheer futility of it all.

What the union needs to do is attack some of the huge gaping holes in the Pro Baseball Agreement that governs Nippon Professional Baseball and exploit those for meaningful concessions, such as shortening the amount of service time needed or creating a real pension plan.

The real place to start would be Japan’s reserve clause, which a former GM said recently are essentially unconstitutional, with courts rejecting the claim of companies and pro sports teams that their contracts allow them to block the movement of entertainers and pro athletes.

“The reserve clause is inherently unconstitutional,” he said. “I have to think it will fall under the slightest challenge.”

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.

Lies

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.

Incompetence

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.

Do the right thing

Japanese pro baseball is trying to open its season in a responsible way, but that does not mean it’s easy. This was made clear on Wednesday, when one of its 2019 MVPs, on one of the nation’s more popular teams tested positive.

Compared to the United States, Japan’s COVID0-19 response has been fairly apolitical, meaning disinformation has not been a huge problem here. But even still, this is a tricky issue here and something that does not bode well for American baseball this year.

Officials rushed in to declare that everything was normal, and a top epidemiologist concurred, but that doesn’t make it any less concerning about whether playing baseball in empty stadiums is still feasible.

Hayato Sakamoto, the Yomiuri Giants’ team captain and one of the faces of the Japanese game was reported to be asymptomatic. He and a teammate had PRC tests taken because the Giants asked everyone in the organization who comes in contact with players to have antibody tests taken.

The Giants were quick to point out that no one would have known about Sakamoto or Oshiro’s brushes with COVID-19 had they not undergone team-wide testing. Because epidemiology specialists ruled the players to be low risks to infect others, Nippon Professional Baseball, which has a long history of accommodating the Giants, said “Nothing to see here.”

That may be true. There is no indication that results are being fudged, but there are questions about how far teams are willing to go to make sure things are done in a safe manner. The PR-conscious Giants ordered everyone connected to the team who had come into contact with Sakamoto and Oshiro to undergo a PCR test within 24 hours.

But the Seibu Lions, who played the Giants on Tuesday at Tokyo Dome in a practice game in said essentially, “we were not told it would be necessary, so we are not having tests done.” The Lions and Giants were due to play another game on Wednesday but the Giants canceled it.

There’s the problem.

Japan has avoided doing rigorous testing, not because of a lack of capacity but because testing would increase the known number of infections. This has partly been a policy to put a good spin on the government’s handling of the situation although it most certainly started as a way of protecting the 2020 Tokyo Olympics Japan in which the nation had invested huge sums.

People with symptoms have been unable to get tests until they’re really, really sick. People have died at home because they were told to self-quarantine and stop bothering doctors and government COVID 19 hotline operators.

That’s the social picture. But there are other questions.

1. Why wait to retest?

Sakamoto, Oshiro and the two others were reportedly given the PCR tests on Tuesday evening after they played against the Lions. But the antibody tests, which are said to produce very quick results were supposedly completed by Sunday.

What took the Giants so long to get PCR tests for their four COVID-19 candidates? Did nobody at the team bother to find out about the antibody test results until after a game was played?

Whatever it was that allowed the two to play after they were believed to have been infected raises a flag. Teams are trying to establish new procedures and manuals so it just might have been a case of something falling through the cracks.

So nobody’s perfect, and certainly most people aren’t perfect the first time they try out a new system. But if the Giants are the team pushing hardest to have a system in place, and they dropped the ball, what does that say for everyone else? NPB is trying hard but it isn’t easy, and no one should be fooled into thinking it is.

Taiwan has managed it because of national preparation and quick aggressive responses, but Japan is not Taiwan, or even South Korea for that matter.

2. What about NPB’s strict guidelines?

NPB is in the middle of formulating strict quarantine and isolation guidelines that would keep anyone testing positive away from their teammates for a long time.

These sounded harsh but practical. Any player or team staff member testing positive would be required to stay home until two weeks after testing negative. The first news that those guidelines were too impractical to teams whose job is to win games first and foremost was when the Giants told people they expected Sakamoto and Oshiro to return as soon as they tested negative.

To that end the two were hospitalized so they can be tested daily. The guidelines, which were due out a few days ago, are apparently still being hammered out.

NPB’s secretary general Atsushi Ihara, a former Yomiuri employee, said nothing that was learned Wednesday was going to change peoples’ thinking about starting the season on June 19 as planned. It should be noted that Ihara was a chief actor in the plot that overthrew former commissioner Ryozo Kato–when Kato wouldn’t introduce a livelier ball the teams wanted, Ihara got a few others to conspire behind the commissioner’s back to change the ball without his knowledge.

The hidden game of baseball and MLB

All this points to is that despite NPB working hard to appear to lay all its cards on the table and be open about how it will attack the coronavirus issue, things are not as transparent as they seem.

Even in a country where the government is not a huge spreader of disinformation and COVID-19 has not become a political football, nothing is exactly as it seems. Owners have declined to talk about financial losses, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t a concern.

In the United States, where reopening is a political as well as an economic issue, it will be far harder to get straight answers to complicated questions. If anyone says it will be safe and feasible to play baseball even behind closed doors in the United States this year, there is an excellent chance they are talking out their ass.

NPB to expand, rescue U.S. amateurs

In a surprise move Wednesday, Nippon Professional Baseball decided to act for the good of the game and rescue Japan’s most popular pro sport from the clutches of Major League Baseball.

“For years Japanese baseball has avoided trying to be the adult in the room. But by their disregard for the rights of amateurs and minor leaguers, MLB and its union have made it clear it’s time for us to put on our big-boy pants.”

NPB commissioner Atsushi Saito

Upon learning MLB and its players’ union planned to make further inroads into their already barbaric treatment of amateur prospects and minor leaguers on account of the coronavirus pandemic, NPB announced a series of measures to save the reputation of Japan’s beloved game from MLB.

In its April 1 declaration, NPB announced it would:

  • Add four teams, two in each league, in Okayama, Nagoya, Shizuoka, and Niigata.
  • Allow all 16 teams, starting in June to sign up to two international amateurs, who will not be counted against each club’s 70-man roster.
  • Abolish the current limit of four imported players on each team’s active roster.

Commissioner Atsushi Saito said, “MLB has left us with no choice. The way it suppresses the rights of amateurs to fair market value gives the sport a bad name and causes the millions of Japanese who love baseball to weep in shame.”

“We hope to take the best and brightest American amateurs and treat them with dignity and quality working conditions they will not find in their homeland. We won’t force them to learn how to bunt or to practice as much as we do because frankly, we don’t think they could.”

NPB’s salary structure

Japan doesn’t have a CBA, but it does have a charter, the “Pro Yakyu Kyoyaku,” approved by the 12 teams, that establishes its operating rules. Japan’s players’ union has the right — thanks to Japan’s fairly liberal labor laws — as opposed to its often draconian labor customs — to approve changes to their working conditions.

Years ago, former NPB star Leon Lee grumbled how hard it was in his then job as a scout for the Chicago Cubs to sign hungry Japanese players, and a large reason for that, he said, are the good working conditions of Japanese pro ballplayers — even those who are not yet ready for action at the top level.

Taking care of the kids

There are three tiers of NPB players. The lowest are on developmental  or “ikusei” contracts. These have a minimum salary of 2.4 million yen ($21,000) a year, cannot be activated to play in first-team Pacific and Central league games but can play in official minor league games in the Eastern and Western leagues. These players do not count against each team’s 70-man organizational roster.

They can, however, be signed to a uniform NPB contract with a 4.4 million yen ($40,000) minimum salary, where they can be activated to the first team, but do count against the 70-man roster, and can only be reserved as developmental players for three years.

Each team can also have up to 29 players on its first team active roster – although only 25 are game usable on any given day. These players’ salary – if under 14.3 million yen ($128,000) are raised to that amount every day they are on the active roster. In 2020, that goes up to 16 million yen ($144,000).

In addition to their living wages, young players have access to room and board at team dormitories, weight rooms and training facilities.

No need to sugar coat it

The Nippon Ham Fighters easily secured the negotiating rights to Shohei Ohtani at NPB’s 2012 amateur draft because the 11 other teams assumed he would sign his first pro contract with a major league team.

So five years before a host of MLB teams mapped out plans to secure Ohtani’s services, the Fighters did the same. A huge part of that was an explanation of what it meant to sign a minor league contract with a major league team, the pay, the working conditions and the cultural difficulties. The club also pointed out the relatively poor record of Japanese athletes who had turned pro overseas.

The Fighters approach, which included an opportunity to pitch and hit, and supposedly an offer to be made available to the majors via the posting system, eventually swayed him.

For a young Japanese player of exceptional talent, the advantages of turning pro here are numerous, since you can make a side deal with

The Japanese way

In MLB, minor league salaries and major league minimums are strictly monitored to make sure clubs don’t engage in private deals that would violate the terms of the CBA that limit the bargaining power of amateurs.

Japan has similar rules for first-year players, but after that teams can pay their players whatever they like. First-year players coming out of the draft are limited to:

  • 100 million yen signing bonus ($900,000) *
  • 50 million yen in incentives *
  • 16 million yen in salary

*-The signing bonus and incentive caps are limits agreed to by the teams that have not been formally added to the baseball charter and thus are not technically “rules.”

Until recently, it was customary for teams to exceed the signing bonus limits by paying cash under the table. In 2006, then Lotte Marines manager Bobby Valentine hit out at teams violating these “guidelines.” Shigeru Murata, then secretary general of the Pacific League estimated at the average first-round draft pick in NPB was getting in the neighborhood of $2.5 million under the table.

See also “NPB under the table.”

Players ineligible to enter through the draft, primarily foreign nationals who have not played amateur ball in Japan, have no salary restrictions. This allowed the SoftBank Hawks to sign Carter Stewart Jr to a six-year $6 million deal last summer.

Under-the-table deals and private personal-service contracts are how NPB teams do business with players. These can even include a promise to be posted to the big leagues in the future. All multiyear deals follow this pattern in that they only specify the ways in which the official salaries will be calculated in future one-year official contracts filed with NPB.

The sky’s the limit

Once players are under contract, however, the teams are allowed to raise their salaries as much as possible. This being Japan, teams are expected to reward big seasons by players on one-year contracts with large pay raises and no one asks questions.

The Central League’s 2019 rookie of the year, slugging first baseman Munetaka Murakami, entered last season under the first-team minimum, making 8 million yen ($72,000). His 2020 salary has been reported at 45 million ($405,000), well more than double the first-team minimum.

— For another take on this phenomenon, see “Marvin Miller’s legacy and Japan.”

The only limitations on salaries have to do with pay cuts and minimum salaries.

Players earning 100 million yen ($900,000) can be forced to take pay cuts up to 25 percent, while those earning more than 100 million yen can be forced to accept 40 percent pay cuts. Players offered pay cuts in excess of those figures can opt to be released so they can sign with another team.