What Japan needs to grow its game

The talk of expanding Nippon Professional Baseball by one third and increasing from 12 to 16 teams raises many questions, especially if one only sees it as grafting four additional teams to the current system, where only four or five of the existing clubs have made serious efforts at player development beyond the bare minimum.

What’s needed is a new set of rules and a new vision that sees Japan’s game as the visionary founder of the current establishment, Matsutaro Shoriki, ostensibly did, not just as a rival to Major League Baseball, but a superior product.

There are several obstacles preventing Japan from achieving these goals.

  1. The small number of professional players 70 players per team with an additional 60 or so on developmental contracts.
  2. This issue is exacerbated by the lack of playing time for those not on the active roster.
  3. A youth baseball culture that culls many of the best athletes from the talent pool through elbow and shoulder injuries caused by overuse before they even reach high school.
  4. This issue runs parallel to a declining birth rate and an even sharper decline in youth baseball participation as parents and kids opt for less dangerous sports with a less burdensome practice culture — as NBA player Rui Hachimura did.
  5. Limiting imported players to four on the active roster, making it difficult to invest in overseas amateurs.

No. 1 cannot be solved by keeping the current system as it is. Teams are tackling No. 2 piecemeal: Some have been aggressively investing, while others have done precious little. No. 3 is one area where progress is being made, with youth organizing bodies beginning to implement limits to curb coaches’ excesses, while No. 5 offers a solution to No. 4.

Considering Japan’s population — even with its declining birthrate, the idea that 12 pro baseball teams in a country with minimal competition from other pro sports is in itself a stretch. What is lacking is not money or population but sports business know-how and desire to be bigger. It doesn’t help that the Yomiuri Giants hate when teams gobble up their share of Japan’s unclaimed markets — as happened when Nippon Ham moved to Hokkaido.

The importance of being No. 1

Although top major league stars earn more than any players in NPB, many Japanese players will go to the States knowing it will mean a pay cut. Yet they go because it is a chance to compete against the best and because it is something different. It’s not always about money after a point.

If Japanese pro baseball were able to absorb a greater share of international amateur talent and develop it, and that is entirely possible, then that would put this country on a road that could lead to it having the best baseball in the world.

Of course, one of the benefits of having leagues on par with those in MLB is overseas revenue, something NPB has been blissfully ignorant of all these years. What’s the market in America when some of the best American players are in Japan? In Canada? In Mexico? You’ve got it.

Instead, the message has been: “Let’s keep it small. Let’s keep it Japanese. That’s enough.”

Starting small

My Japan Baseball Weekly Podcast partner, John E. Gibson, suggested that a development network be put in place first before expansion, and that’s a valid point. It’s also problematic.

Japan has pro teams in seven metropolitan areas, or eight if one wants to separate Yokohama and Kanagawa from the Tokyo megalopolis. The point is that until recently, pro baseball was about 12 first teams and farm teams. Independent minor leagues have been operating now for more than a decade but they are a new thing and are not really considered professional but exist in a kind of limbo world between the amateur and pro ranks.

The point is that unlike the United States, where every reasonably large city has a pro baseball team, either major or minor, Japan is either major or nothing. There is no tradition of local pro teams because pro baseball began in essence as a fully-formed league. Before then, there had been company teams and club teams and one independent pro team — the Shibaura Club.

Although the Yomiuri Giants tout themselves as Japan’s first pro team, they were, in fact, the second. If anything, the Hanshin Tigers have a better historical pedigree, as they were organized by former members of the original Shibaura Club.

The point is that the idea of most Japanese cities having their own pro ballclub may be kind of an alien idea. But having said that, when I lived in Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture, the people there talked about having an NPB franchise — instead of being a Chunichi Dragons satellite town.

The question is how does one get the locals to give their hearts to a hometown team that is professional but not NPB?

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