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From Our Correspondent: Taking a Strike At Baseball
The game has got to face reality

October 31, 2000
Web posted at 5:30 p.m. Hong Kong time, 5:30 a.m. EDT

I'm no avid baseball fan, but I was struck by the news that the game's greatest hero in Japan, Ichiro Suzuki, is leaving to play in the U.S. I don't mean I will miss him or am worried about the fate of his Kobe-based Orix Blue Wave team in his absence, or am concerned about the state of Japanese baseball without him. What caught my attention was the way Ichiro's action so keenly underlined the way Japanese pro baseball has become a metaphor for Old Japan vs. New Japan.

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At 26, Ichiro is the best-paid baseball player in Japan, with a contract worth US$5 million a year. He has a good life here, with nothing to prove. But he has chosen instead to take on the challenge of a new country. "I've concluded that now is the best time for me to go to the U.S., in terms of both my age and physical strength," he says. Ichiro is not the first to make that decision. Southpaw pitcher Nomo Hideo moved to the U.S. in l995. Sasaki Kazuhiro, another pitcher, has been making headlines with the Seattle Mariners, with whom he started early this year. Ichiro, however, will be the first Japanese infielder to join the major leagues.

The player is a cult figure in Japan. In a cultural climate where coaches try to impose rigid training and to mold players into some preconceived notion of what they should be, Ichiro has stuck to his own style and still found stardom — to the point that 100,000 Ichiro miniature dolls were snapped up (at $2.80 each) when they went on sale in August.

His move to the U.S. was made possible by the gradual globalization of baseball. Japan and the U.S. signed an agreement two years ago on a new "posting system," which enables young players more freedom to shift around. Under the rules, a player is required to play for at least nine seasons — soon it will be cut to seven — with the same team before becoming a free agent (FA) and moving on. Ichiro joined the BlueWave in 1992 and needs another year to qualify for FA status. But in the newly introduced posting system, other teams — Japanese or overseas — interested in a pre-FC players can submit bids to the player's current team. The highest bidder wins the right to negotiate with the player directly.

Ichiro's departure is worrying some fans, who fear other talented players will follow, making Japanese teams simply training centers for American teams. Younger players may move to the U.S. even before they join a Japanese team. Astonishingly, officials involved with the Japanese game are the last to see what is happening. It's a form of blindness common in bankers, parliamentarians, corporate managers, school teachers, and many other professions. The division is growing deeper between the business-as-usual attitudes of Old Japan and the New Japan that is moving on to new challenges.

Soccer, the true global game, has been sucking away baseball's fans, particularly young ones, over the past 10 years. Even the mighty Yomiuri Giants baseball team is experiencing lower gates and smaller TV audiences, though part of this can be put down to the fact that it has the spending power to sign up the best players — making its games a one-sided and not very entertaining experience.

The decline of baseball — and of the Old Japan — is slow and not always evident on the surface. Recently, fans were stirred up by what was dubbed the "O-N confrontation" in the Millennium Japan Series, where the top teams from the Pacific and Central leagues played against each other to become No. 1 for the season. The O stands for Oh Sadaharu, 60, the legendary manager of the Daiei Hawks. And the N is Nagashima Shigeo, 64, an all-time great and boss of the Yomiuri Giants. The two were both Japanese baseball superstars in the 1960s.

Sony chairman Idei Nobuyuki told me in an interview early this year that Japan's business success up to the l980s has prevented the country moving onward to a new era. People would rather continue with the good old ways of the Old Japan, he said. It seems this is also true of baseball, where fans prefer to bask in the achievements of two men 40 years ago than focus on what is happening around them.

Now the O-N confrontation is over, with victory going last weekend to the Yomiuri Giants. And soon Ichiro will be gone to the U.S. Will baseball then wake up and face reality? If it does, will Old Japan do the same?

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