|05-17-2001, 08:04 AM||#1|
Join Date: Apr 2001
Location: The bowels of Shea
As reported in today's New York Times:
May 17, 2001
Tokyo Journal: Japan's Baseball Dims as Its Stars Shine Abroad
By HOWARD W. FRENCH
OKYO, May 12 — From steel to supercomputers, for decades the Japanese have compulsively measured themselves against the United States, and professional baseball has been one area where people here have always thought their country comes up short.
But now that the best Japanese players are increasingly showing they can compete in the American major leagues, Japanese professional baseball is suddenly wondering if it can survive the competition with American teams for talent.
The breakthrough this season of Ichiro Suzuki of the Seattle Mariners and Tsuyoshi Shinjo of the New York Mets, the first nonpitchers from this country to play in the major leagues, has been celebrated here by extraordinary fan interest and pride. So much so, in fact, the television audience and ballpark attendance for Japan's professional teams have taken a sharp hit.
After weeks of quiet observation of this disquieting trend, Japan's baseball establishment and some fans have been groping for an answer.
Tokyo Sports, a daily newspaper, recently reported that executives of the Nippon Television Network had issued a secret order to the channel's sports program directors to play down highlights of major league games.
The network, a member of the same corporate family that owns Japan's richest and by far most popular and successful baseball team, the Yomiuri Giants, denied the report.
"There has been no such order," said Tomoyasu Koibuchi, a spokesman for the network. "Regarding the major league games, there is an issue of copyrights."
For avid fans, the best evidence of something strange afoot was the absence on the network of any mention of a May 3 game in which Hideo Nomo of the Boston Red Sox, a Japanese pitcher well established in the major leagues, and Ichiro faced off for the first time in the United States. The game took place two days after a Yomiuri Giants game drew an 11.6 percent viewer rating, the low for the season. The average ratings for the team in April were the worst for the month in five years.
The duel between Nomo, who pitched a no-hitter earlier this year, and Ichiro, a former batting champion in Japan and one of the American League's top hitters so far this season, was the talk of Japan all that week and was the lead item on most sports programs and in the pages of this country's newspapers. Their performance, together with that of Shinjo of the Mets, has usually been the lead item of most sports news programs throughout the season.
A recent sports news broadcast by the state-owned NHK network was typical. It began with taped highlights of the three players and then the announcer said, in a deadpan that only reinforced the feeling that it was an afterthought, "and now we turn to Japanese pro baseball."
Broadcasters and sports editors say, apparently with reason, that the prominence they are giving to the exploits of the expatriate players merely reflects the interest of the fans. But for many who have spent their lives in or near the Japanese professional game there is a feeling that rankles: that after decades of autonomous development this country's teams may suddenly be turning into yet another American farm league of sorts.
"Sooner or later, I have no doubt that Hideki Matsui will say he wants to go to the major leagues," Shigeo Nagashima, the Giants' manager wrote ruefully in a recent essay in the Asahi Shimbun about the team's star outfielder. "I am sure that he thinks he can play in the majors because Ichiro is doing so well. However, Matsui represents Japanese baseball, and if he goes it will be a problem for professional baseball. Even though I somehow want to let him go, I want him to stay in Japan, because heroes are an important part of sports."
Some say the loss of stars like Ichiro hits especially hard because the collapse of the country's economic bubble 11 years ago, after a decade of almost euphoric prosperity, and the ensuing drift and decline have left people with few heroes and little to cheer. And the current stagnation and financial decay in Japanese baseball mirror what has been taking place in the society at large, as well as Japan's sense of relative decline vis-à-vis America.
"Japanese baseball will decline as top players drain away to the U.S. because as businesses the teams cannot continue to exist unless they maintain their popularity," said Takinori Emoto, a member of Parliament and former pitcher with the Hanshin Tigers. "By copying the U.S., the salaries of players here have been skyrocketing, but many teams are running deficits, and some of them may not be viable. Unless some kind of agreement is reached between the U.S. and Japan for the good of the game and for mutual benefit, it is inevitable that Japanese pro baseball will be hurt."
Major league owners in the United States also complain about high player salaries and some say they are losing money, but they are not losing stars to Japan.
Comments like Mr. Emoto's echo American proposals for managed trade of popular Japanese exports like autos and televisions that have frequently vexed relations between the countries in the past.
But not everybody is filled with gloom about the future of Japanese baseball. Just as many economists say that Japan's prolonged recession is the price of heavy regulation and widespread protectionism, some critics of the game say that competition from the American major leagues is just what Japanese baseball needs to revive itself.
"This new phenomenon should lead to a higher level of baseball, which will draw more fans and encourage better management of the teams," said Toshi Saeki, a professor of sports sociology at Tskuba University. "People will try to create regulations, but we can't stop the trend of top players going to the States. Rather, we should encourage Japanese players to go when they are young and come back to Japan when they are mature."
You Gotta Believe
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