Tag Archives: Tsuneo Watanabe

Postseason split

The Central League is expected to cancel its Climax Series postseason playoffs in order to focus to allow for as many regular-season games, Sankei Sports reported on Saturday. The Pacific League is expected to stick with some kind of playoffs to choose its Japan Series competitor.

While virtually everything is new about the 2020 season because of the coronavirus, for stretches of their history the CL and PL have split on their approach to postseason baseball.

The PL, which has traditionally trailed the CL in attendance, has repeatedly tried playoff systems, a single-season trial in 1952, a 10-year stretch from 1973 to 1982 when the first-half and second-half champions played off, and most recently from 2004 to 2006.

The 1952 model consisted of all seven PL teams playing a 108-game season, and the four best clubs playing 12 more. The 1973-1982 format was filled with problems, primarily one of rainouts. Japan has not managed rainouts well, and first-half games rained out and made out at the end of the season, counted toward the first-half championship, not the second.

Teams that won the first half could go into the Japan Series uncontested by winning the second, but often they just fell flat in the second half.

I wasn’t around for those first two tries, but when the PL tried again in 2004, it was accompanied by a chorus of laughter from the old guard and the CL, ridiculing it for watering down the value of the regular season.

The new CL format would allow the third-place team to reach the Japan Series, prompting one of Japan’s biggest windbags, then Yomiuri Giants owner Tsuneo Watanabe to spout some of the nonsense he was famous for.

“If the Giants win the CL and the PL champion doesn’t have a winning record, we’ll boycott,” he famously said.

Of course, the reason those playoffs only lasted three years was because the CL owners got jealous of the big crowds that second-division PL teams drew in the waning weeks of the season and wanted in. The PL playoffs were replaced by the Climax Series, which was modified so as not to offend CL sensibilities.

So if things go as the Sankei Sports reported, it will be a nice taste of nostalgia, with the CL owners getting once more to spout off about old-school family values or whatever, and very possibly at the end of the season wishing they had kept their damned mouths shut.

NPB goes viral: Kakefu argues for small ball

The website of Fukuoka broadcaster TV Nishinihon, which has been covering the debate over NPB expanding to 16 teams, published part of an interview with former Hanshin Tigers great Masayuki Kakefu, who would prefer 10 teams in NPB with a kind of minor league development system that is not run by the teams. You can find the article HERE.

“When I was manager of Hanshin’s farm team, I asked the front office why we don’t have a third team like the SoftBank Hawks and Yomiuri Giants do,” Kakefu told the interviewer, retired former Hawks and Tigers pitcher Chikafusa Ikeda. “They said, ‘The outlay for infrastructure and expenses add up to quite a lot over the course of the year, but are not worth it when you consider the low chances of any of those players contributing on the first team.”

By that logic, the Tigers wouldn’t have a farm team if they weren’t required by NPB rules to have one. And since the Tigers are historically bad at developing talent, it would make sense for them to believe that a third team would just mean more expenses for more players who would never have careers with them.

Kakefu doesn’t really give a reason why he thinks 10 teams are better than 12, other than asking whether fans want “more baseball or better baseball.”

In my opinion, like some other former Giants and Tigers players, he’s just being nostalgic for the days before the NPB draft when the Hanshin Tigers and Yomiuri Giants could afford to pay full value for amateur talent and other teams could not.

An independent alternative

The easy way to handle expansion is to simply do away with the active-roster limit of four imported players. Kakefu’s idea that a level of minor league development not be owned by the team but somehow contracted out is an interesting one but probably makes no sense for anyone.

A dream alternative would be for NPB to have its clubs to reduce their rosters to about 30 players while allowing for player loans and for purchases at market value from fully professional independent minor leagues. Currently, there are over 1,000 players under contract with NPB teams. If four teams were added and needed only 30 players, there still would be plenty of players available to seed two or four smaller regional leagues. These clubs would compete for their own championships, sign their own players, develop their own markets and players, and sell surplus talent to other teams and other leagues.

This would mean a huge increase in the amount of affordable professional baseball in Japan and, I believe, in the quality of talent.

That’s my two yen on the subject for the time being at least.

Uehara: “MLB club flew me to U.S. as an amateur”

One of the stories of NPB’s 1998 amateur draft was Koji Uehara’s decision to turn down a reported $5 million offer from the Angels to stay in Japan and sign with the Yomiuri Giants, who–IF they abided by an NPB’s gentleman’s agreement–could only offer amateurs a total of 150 million yen in signing bonuses and 1st-year incentives.

Fifteen years ago, I asked Uehara about this and he said he did get an offer from an MLB team but they would only guarantee that he would start now lower than Double-A. He also said he was not confident living in an English-speaking environment and for those two reasons chose nine years of indentured servitude with the Giants.

The most likely answer to the riddle of why Uehara turned down more money in exchange for a guaranteed roster spot with the Giants was that he didn’t. The Giants, most believe simply offered him a lot more money. And as long as he paid his taxes on it or the Giants successfully hid it, then there would be no questions asked.

Anyway, to get back to Uehara’s “confession” published by Sports Nippon Annex HERE, he told Fuji Television that during his senior year in his 1998 summer vacation, an MLB club paid for his trip to the States.

“I thought it was great,” he said. “They paid for everything. I got to throw a little in the bullpen. They took me to a night game and I was really enthused. I was leaning toward signing with them.”

He didn’t, he said, because the team’s Asia scout told him, “Only come if you are 100 percent certain. If you’re not, you won’t make it.” Uehara said he had been 100 percent certain but the more he went over the idea with his parents that confidence eroded.

Water under the table

That doesn’t mean the Giants didn’t offer him more money. Clubs aren’t bound to the NPB bonus and incentive limits for amateurs, and in legal filings, have called them “just guidelines.” In 1993, the Giants successfully lobbied for a change to the draft rules that allowed players the right to turn down draft selections under certain circumstances. That started a huge market in under-the-table signing bonuses.

Some people said there was never any evidence for that, but it has come out in various ways. An accountant who was an acquaintance of a Dragons coach convinced a string of players that they could hide their unreported bonuses and avoid paying taxes on them.

Those players, including former national team manager Hiroki Kokubo, were arrested, convicted and suspended. Tsuneo Watanabe, the windbag president of the Yomiuri Shimbun and then “owner” of the Giants, lambasted the Dragons and Hawks for signing “tax cheats.” This was rich coming from Watanabe who is infamous for being a tax cheat.

When I was at the Daily Yomiuri, the company handed us all bank accounts at Fuji Bank, currently Mizuho, into which all our work expenses would be paid. But several of my Japanese coworkers received more than one account but were told never to touch the other one or worry about the sums of money going in and out of it. A likely explanation for those accounts was that they were used by the company to hide taxes by reporting non-existent business expenses.

NPB under the table

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.

Scapegoat time in Tiger Land?

“When you see a team looking around for a scapegoat, that’s a pretty good indication that one will soon be needed.”

Bill James

I’m not certain that Yangervis Solarte is being fitted for the goat horns or not, but the news today that he went 0-for-3 and made an error in his first game on the farm since being deactivated is a bad sign.

The bigger the team is in Japan, the greater the need for a fall guy when things go wrong. As a result, we see it a lot with Japan’s too oldest clubs, the Hanshin Tigers and the Yomiuri Giants — although less with the Giants now that their fascist generalissimo, Tsuneo Watanabe, is fading into the background.

Solarte is 13-for-69 with nine walks and a .406 slugging average, and has been a ball of energy and fun, although not a superior defender at short.

A friend of mine who was spending a year covering the Tigers for the Daily Sports, perhaps the paper that has the most intense Tigers following, told me that in the summer of 2012, a number of the team’s veterans –including legend Tomoaki Kanemoto — were hitting for a low average, but the coaches refused to criticize them to reporters, who badly needed a scapegoat.

According to the reporter, the coaches began giving harsh evaluations of Matt Murton and Craig Brazell in order to satisfy the media pack. This led to streams of annoying questions for Murton who eventually burst out with a sarcastic quip that gave the press what it wanted.

I don’t think the team is looking to turn Solarte into a scapegoat, but stories by the Tigers beat writers this summer suggested that Jefry Marte was the leading candidate until Solarte’s arrival, but that his new teammate is the man whose head is being fitted for horns by reporters.

Maverick Uehara runs his course

Former Yomiuri Giants ace and Boston Red Sox closer Koji Uehara announced his retirement Monday in Tokyo, bringing an end to an entertaining and dynamic career in which he became the first Japanese player to register 100 wins, saves and holds.

At a press conference in which the 44-year-old worked in vain to hold back tears, saying he came into the season knowing it would be his last. Three months after the start of camp and unable to get batters out on the farm despite feeling fit, Uehara said he wanted to call it quits sooner rather than later – when a retirement press conference might be a distraction during the pennant race.

Read a transcript of Uehara’s retirement press conference in Tokyo HERE.

Uehara burst on the scene in 1999, going 20-4 for the Giants after he turned down the Angels, who were said to have offered a deal worth $9 million – about seven times what an NPB team could officially offer an amateur.

In 2005, he told Japan’s Daily Yomiuri (now the Japan News) the Giants guaranteed he would start on the first team, while the Angels would only go as far as handing him a Double-A opening. Between that, not having to be deal with a language barrier and whatever the Giants were offering under the table, Uehara signed his future away to Yomiuri.

Within a few years, however, Uehara was pushing the Giants for an early exit so he could play in the majors.

“Nine years needed for free agency in Japan is truly a long time, but as an amateur, you don’t think about that,” he told the Daily Yomiuri.

When the Giants’ windbag owner Tsuneo Watanabe told the media that he would fire any player who asked to be posted, Uehara demanded to be posted. When Watanabe threatened to release any player with the temerity to send an agent to contract negotiations, Uehara sent his agent, only for the Giants to deny that Uehara’s representative was in fact an agent.

When Japanese players aquire the service time needed to file for free agency, NPB alerts the media, and reporters descend on them, only to hear, “We’re in the middle of the season. My only focus is on winning a championship.”

Not Uehara.

“I’m going to the majors,” he said during the middle of the 2008 season, a mediocre year that went downhill after he broke the taboo of talking about free agency during the season.

In 1999, he won the Central League’s rookie of the year award and winning the Sawamura Award as Nippon Professional Baseball’s most impressive starting pitcher.

At the end of the season, with the Giants out of the pennant race, Uehara made a meme of himself by protesting a Japanese baseball custom of not competing in order to assist a teammate’s pursuit of an individual title.

With Hideki Matsui pursuing the CL home run title, Uehara was ordered to walk Yakult Swallows slugger Roberton Petagine. Uehara, showed his bent for idealism and tears by crying on the mound, and his distaste for the order by kicking the dirt on the mound after Petagine trotted to first base.

The following year Uehara began suffering the first of a long series of leg injuries but bounced back to be one of the league’s top pitchers from 2002 to 2004. For two years after that Uehara battled more injuries and in 2007 was sent to the bullpen, where he was dynamite as the Giants despite constantly lobbying for a return to the rotation that his fitness wouldn’t justify.

He got a brief shot at starting in 2008 but failed badly, and chose the Baltimore Orioles the following season because they promised him a chance to start in 2009. Traded to the Texas Rangers in 2011, the following season, he was in a pitching staff with two former NPB strikeout leaders, Colby Lewis and Yu Darvish, as well as his high school teammate, Yoshinori Tateyama.

In high school, Tateyama had been the ace, while Uehara who had run track in junior high, was an outfielder, whose principle mound role came as a senior as a batting practice pitcher. He didn’t begin pitching in earnest until he entered university, where he went to earn a teaching credential.

Uehara’s stay with the Rangers, however, was brief. He was cut loose after a poor run of results at the end of the 2012 season and available to the Red Sox at a bargain price and finished seventh in the American League’s Cy Young Award voting.

After one last season in the majors with the Chicago Cubs in 2017, Uehara, at 42 with 95 MLB saves under his belt said he would retire rather than return to NPB, but in March he admitted that he was not ready to give up the life of a pro ballplayer and signed with Yomiuri.

He pitched in 36 games last year for the Giants, going 0-5 with 14 holds and no saves. Last October, he had surgery to clean out his left knee. The Giants released him and re-signed him for 2019 after he was declared fit.

Although he said he was fit all spring, he was ineffective. Through April, he toiled with the Giants’ minor leaguers. He struck out 10 batters in nine innings in the Eastern League but allowed four runs. At his retirement press conference on Monday, he said he’d come into the 2019 season knowing it would be his last. That knowledge, he said, hindered his search for the extra gear he might have had that would turn his year around.

“If you have a next year, then you work even harder,” he said. “This year I was going to compete for a full season, but I had already told myself I didn’t have any more next years. As one would expect, I found it very hard to keep my body and mind in sync.”

Kuriyama tip toes through Japan’s history minefield

Fighters manager Hideki Kuriyama scratched the surface of baseball history on Wednesday with his 527th victory with the Nippon Ham Fighters.

In the Nikkan Sports online edition for May 8, Daisuke Yamashita used Kuriyama’s achievement to provide some insight into history’s web as he moved past Hall of Fame manager Shigeru Mizuhara as No. 2 in career wins with the franchise.

The original story in Japanese is HERE.

While Yamashita does a good job of explaining Kuriyama’s appreciation of Mizuhara’s legacy, the whole exercise represents another example of Japan’s difficult relationship with history and tradition.

In itself, Kuriyama’s achievement is akin to passing Babe Ruth on the Red Sox’s all-time home run list, because Mizuhara is better known as the man who laid the foundation’s for the most successful period in the history of the Yomiuri Giants.

The franchise that from 1954 to 1972 was known as the Toei Flyers, whose principle owner was the Toei movie studio, was taken over by Nippon Ham in 1974.

Mizuhara quit the Giants after Yomiuri’s founder, Matsutaro Shoriki said the skipper had brought shame on the Giants in 1960 for losing the Central League pennant after five-straight championships. Extra credit to you if that sentence summons an image of former Giants owner Tsuneo Watanabe and Hall of Fame manager Tatsunori Hara.

Unlike Hara, who waited for a second chance with Yomiuri, Mizuhara jumped to the Pacific League’s flyers in 1961, managed them to their second consecutive runner-up finish before winning the franchise’s first title the following year.

To return to the present, Kuriyama spoke of Mizuhara and his great rival, Osamu Mihara, who never managed the franchise, but who was the team’s first president under Nippon Ham in 1974. Mihara had been supplanted as Giants manager by Mizuhara, and who – after building the Nishitetsu Lions into a PL powerhouse – sparked Mizuhara’s Yomiuri exodus in 1960 by winning the CL pennant with the unheralded Taiyo Whales.

“They were baseball’s founding fathers. I think of them together, Mr. Mihara and Mr. Mizuhara, as belonging to that one era,” Yamashita quoted Kuriyama as saying after Wednesday’s 1-0 win over the Orix Buffaloes.

According to Yamashita, Kuriyama, a lover of history, spent time over the offseason reading Japanese classic history texts, the “Kojiki” and the “Nihon Shoki.”

“Pretty much everything that happens is something someone has experienced in the past. Things really don’t change that much. I’m going looking in those texts,” Kuriyama has said according to Yamashita.

The best part of the story is that while the word “history” is often dragged out as a tired excuse for doing something unimaginative, Kuriyama has shown he is not terribly interested in defending old ways. The same man who conceived of – or at least takes credit for – the idea that Shohei Ohtani might both hit and pitch, is this season adopting extreme defensive shifts and experimenting with different starting pitching and relieving assignments.

In referencing both Mihara and Mizuhara, Kuriyama both speaks to his own nature while still paying his respects to Japanese baseball’s creed that eliminating negatives equals a positive.

Mizuhara, an unrelenting perfectionist, in ways represents the popular notion that zero defects is perfection, while Mihara, a brash innovator, represents, I think, more of Kuriyama’s true nature as someone who strives to be an early adaptor on the cutting edge.

It’s a difficult balance to strike in Japan, because innovation carries the possibility of an implied criticism of how things were done before by the game’s greats.

Less-established innovators who fail to pay lip service to their esteemed predecessors by kissing dogma’s ass, often end up being cast out for their trouble. The trick is to do things differently, while making excuses for it, and not appearing to be too proud about having coming up with something different and giving everyone else credit. So far, it’s been working for Kuriyama.

Becoming a modern day Joshua

High school pitcher Roki Sasaki is in an unusual position.

Having pitched baseballs at 100 miles per hour, professional clubs in America and Japan may be more flexible than usual when it comes to negotiating with the Ofunato High School senior. Of course, whether he uses that leverage to break down barriers, or just goes with the flow is up to him.

The barriers

In my last post, I laid out the hurdles that stand in Sasaki’s way if he wants to play in the major leagues. A straight line may be the shortest geometric distance between two points, the quickest and easiest way for Sasaki to become a big leaguer might well be to play in Nippon Professional Baseball.

Ideally, he’d like to emulate fellow Iwate Prefecture native Shohei Ohtani and go to the majors as a 23-year-old as a veteran professional. Unfortunately, MLB closed that door before the 2018 season, by changing NPB teams’ posting fees to a percentage of a player’s contract and at the same time decided any overseas player under 25 can only sign a minor league contract and receive a case of catfood in exchange in lieu of a signing bonus. That worked for Ohtani because MLB exempted his NPB club, the Nippon Ham Fighters from the new rules and allowed them to request a $20 million posting fee.

So a 23-year-old posting is out of the question for Sasaki, who still might conceivably be drafted by a team that refuses to post players at all.

Ohtani had the option of going straight to a major league club out of high school as a pitcher but made the excellent choice of signing with the Fighters, a progressive organization that helped him nurture his unusual skill set and permitted him to go to the majors when he was ready. It seems unlikely an MLB club could have done as well.

The NPB advantage

If a teenager is really talented but not ready for the majors, NPB is a vastly better place to start than the U.S. minors. NPB’s two top leagues present a combination of world-class pitchers and hitters and a much lower floor for talent than in the majors. A really good youngster with confidence can test himself against some of the best in the world while still going up against players only a little better but more experienced than he is.

But having solved one problem by an NPB detour, only creates another for a major league aspirant: how to limit NPB’s nine-year indentured servitude and transition to MLB while young enough to make meaningful adjustments? The only meaningful way is to use his rare talent as a trumpet to bring down the barriers put in his way like Joshua and the Israelites were supposed to have done to the walls of Jericho.

Upsetting the applecart

In 2013, the wall of conventional wisdom that separated position players from pitchers — and said none shall ever do both – was broken because of Shohei Ohtani. In order to sign him and prevent the youngster from going to the U.S. as a pitcher, Fighters manager Hideki Kuriyama seized the moment, blew his trumpet and changed the world. Ohtani wouldn’t have gone that far on his own, but his talent, hard work — and his declared intent to play in America – brought Kuriyama and the Fighters to Jericho. The skipper didn’t bring down the wall but he created a breach big enough for Ohtani to step through and change baseball.

This autumn, Sasaki will be in the same position Ohtani was in late in 2012, and his choices will be difficult and fraught with anxiety and uncertainty. Assuming he wants to play in this year’s summer national high school tournament, and also hopes to play professionally in Japan, he will need to do what no one has ever done. He’ll have to announce he’ll only sign with a team that promises to post him on his terms.

That alone could generate as much negative press as Hideo Nomo’s announcement after the 1994 season that he was leaving Japan as a “retired player” to play in the majors. Nomo did the hard work, bore the brunt of the hostility, but he still needed help from agent Don Nomura and attorney Jean Afterman. And Sasaki, if he chooses to buck tradition and demand a posting promise before signing, is going to need some serious backup, too, and that will require him to break another taboo. Until now, no Japanese amateur — that I know of — has ever employed an agent to negotiate with the club that won his rights through the draft. And if the posting demand doesn’t force Japan’s ubiquitous sports dailies to exhaust their colored ink supplies, bringing in an agent – particularly one from the States — will.

Teams typically talk to a young draftee, his parents, his coach and perhaps a friendly advisor. But an agent? Not on your nelly. Perhaps they will and perhaps they won’t. Perhaps the team that drafts him will be the Yomiuri Giants or the SoftBank Hawks, who never post players and have no interest in opening that door for an 18-year-old. If so, they will wage a campaign through the media about the need to protect Japanese values and try to wait out the youngster. They won’t want to give up on him because NPB doesn’t hand out compensation draft picks the way MLB does.

The problem with that tactic, is that Sasaki, having gone to all the trouble of hiring an agent, will already have Plan B in place, which is to register with MLB in May for the next international signing period from July 2020 to June 2021. Perhaps that will light a fire under the NPB team in question and force them to deal fairly with Sasaki.

At the heart of the problem is the draft. It was implemented to keep amateurs from getting fair market value for their services and worked that way, until the top picks in America eventually started demanding something approaching fair value. The new CBA limits how much money teams can spend on signing bonuses, depriving the amateurs once more of their rights. In the same way, the new CBA allowed MLB clubs to pay Ohtani – an established star in a top-flight pro league– the same as an 18-year-old coming out of an American high school.

Japanese teams, too, have a signing bonus and contract limit on each sign newly signed draft pick, that apparently is now enforced. But they can offer more than money. They can offer — as the Fighters did with Ohtani —  a development plan and the right to choose his destiny. Baseball tradition, of course, weighs heavily against giving players options, but there are no rules restricting treating players like valued human beings.

Of course, there is no need to bend over backward for most players. This only applies to individuals who put themselves in prime position, as Ohtani did and Sasaki can. For those players with talent and options, walls can tumble, provided someone is willing to pick up that trumpet.

If young Mr. Sasaki really wants to play in the majors, there is no harm in playing Joshua and seeing what walls he can bring down.

The comic history of player agents in NPB

The story of agents negotiating for domestic players in Japan could have been written by Jerry Seinfeld. For years and years, owners would not negotiate with Japanese players’ agents. In short, the owners’ stance was “tradition.”

But as much as owners shout about traditions being inflexible, Japan’s loudest and most powerful owner over the past 40 years was also the most hypocritical. Enter former Yomiuri Shimbun president Tsuneo Watanabe, known far and wide as “Nabetsune.”

One of Japan’s most notable blowhards, then the “owner” of the Giants, Watanabe, was the leader in saying Japanese baseball relationships were unique and personal, where an agent had no place. Watanabe declared that any Giants player who hired an agent must be lacking in character and would be handed his release.

Then came pitcher Kimiyasu Kudo, now a Hall of Famer and the manager of the SoftBank Hawks. Kudo, who had joined the then-Daiei Hawks as a freee agent, tested the waters a second time after he’d helped the franchise to victory in the 1999 Japan Series. Kudo eventually signed with the Giants after sending his agent to negotiate. Other owners were livid that Nabetsune had broken ranks, but Watanabe said the attorney in question wasn’t acting as Kudo’s agent, and was only “meeting” with club officials – rather than negotiating.

The years went by and the owners continued to reject players’ agents, until the Giants did it again. This time, ace pitcher Koji Uehara sent his agent to talk with the club for his annual salary negotiation. Uehara had turned down a lucrative offer from the Angels to sign with the Giants out of university, and if Nabestsune would make good on his boast, the pitcher could go to the majors at his leisure. Unfortunately, as with Kudo, the Giants denied having talked with an agent, but rather with “a friend of the pitcher’s acting as an advisor.”

But that kind of newspaper fodder was bound to end, and did when the players union hired attorneys. Knowing “baseball tradition” has no legal weight regardless how many times their words appeared in the press, the owners accepted agents, but only for one year and only on a trial basis. That was 20 years ago,  and agents are now commonplace.

Welcome to NPBspeak

The Oceania of George Orwell’s 1984 has  Newspeak as its official language which is used to transmit to the proletariat the wisdom of Big Brother. Japanese professional baseball in a nifty parallel has Npbspeak to guide fans according to the will of its shogun, former Yomiuri Shimbun president Tsuneo Watanabe.

Take Tokyo Dome and its infamous official capacity for baseball of 55,000. Through 1984 — oops 2004 — reporters obligingly include references to crowds of 55,000 at the park in their Npbspeak. In the 28 Japan Series games — when attendance is actually counted, crowd figures ranged from 43,848 to 48,342, yet nobody in the mainstream media noticed anything unusual about that. Except for Robert Whiting and a few others, no one was publicly saying: “Hey this place looks full, how come it’s not 55,000?” Because  Watanabe said, “Tokyo Dome’s capacity is 55,000,” where they thinking, “hmm must not be a sellout.”?

At Game 2 of the 1996 Series against Ichiro Suzuki’s Orix BlueWave, the place was jammed and sounded like you were inside a jet engine, but somehow nobody mentioned anything incongruous about an announced crowd of 45,806 without any empty seats at a park reported as holding 55,000.

About that time I called the Seibu Lions to ask how come Seibu Stadium could hold 50,000 fans for a holiday sellout against the Kintetsu Buffaloes, but max out at just 31,883 against the Yomiuri Giants in the Japan Series. It sure wasn’t the cost of tickets, because at that time a Lions Series game ticket cost only 50 percent more than for the regular season. The Lions answered: “During the Japan Series, the fire department prevents us from seating proles — fans — in the aisles.”

Right.

Then after the 2004 season, when the players went out on strike and the proles stood behind them in their fight against the owners, Nippon Professional Baseball teams decided to announce attendance figures that “approximated reality,” whatever that means. In Nagoya, the Chunichi Dragons apparently only admitted fans in blocks of 100 that year, since all their announced attendances that season ended in “00.”

On Opening Day, April 1, 2005, the pressbox automatons who had been dutifully reporting Tokyo Dome had been filled with 55,000 fans at every Giants game for years, reported a full house of 43,684. Since that day, the highest announced attendance has been 46,831.

“Tokyo Dome’s maximum capacity is 46,831. It has always been 46,831.”

SO when NPB announced there would be new rules this year — NPBspeak grammar required at least one “new” rule be an existing one. Baseball has prohibited catchers without the ball from obstructing runners for over 150 years. Yet the practice was accepted in both MLB and NPB despite clearly being against the rules. Rather than admit it hadn’t been enforcing the rule, which is an NPB tradition, a rule — a redundant duplication of the old one — was included in the new package so it could be called “new” with the hope that the proles wouldn’t notice.