MLB Could Expand to Japan

Posted by at 3 July, at 20 : 00 PM Print

(Mainichi Japan) July 1, 2009

Japanese baseball must find a path out of the shadow of the major leagues

Children play cricket in a backyard in Varanasi on May 24. The popularity of a game that has much in common with baseball has been a reason for MLB’s expansion into India. (Mainichi)
Children play cricket in a backyard in Varanasi on May 24. The popularity of a game that has much in common with baseball has been a reason for MLB’s expansion into India. (Mainichi)

In November 2008, in a village of 2,000 people on the outskirts of the Hindu holy city Varanasi about 700 kilometers from New Delhi, the first Indian Major League Baseball star was born.

From the more than 30,000 people who tried out for “Million Dollar Arm,” an Indian television contest with the goal of finding major league-worthy athletes, two contestants were selected to sign with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Dinesh Patel, 20, was one of them.

While Patel had never played baseball through high school, he was a javelin thrower. He threw a pitch on the program that was recorded at over 140 kilometers per hour, which caught the eye of a former MLB scout.

Patel grew up on buffalo milk, and his family lives on a farm with no telephone or television. “(Dinesh) didn’t know anything about the U.S., let alone the major leagues,” laughs his 23-year-old brother. With the boy next door suddenly a national hero now training in the U.S., families in Patel’s hometown are planning to have satellite antennas installed so that they can watch MLB games.

This is evidence that MLB’s expansionist policy has now reached India, which, with a population of 1.1 billion people, is expected to surpass China to become the most populated country in the world.

The World Baseball Classic (WBC), which Japan won for the second consecutive time in March this year, was also based on MLB’s global vision.

A few years before the inaugural WBC tournament in 2006, the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) announced a proposal to restructure the major leagues into four leagues divided into the Pacific rim, parts of the American Southwest and Central and South America, an area centered around the American Midwest, and Eastern U.S. and Europe. Under the plan, Japan would have been included in the Pacific Rim league. Says non-fiction writer Kazuo Sayama, an SABR member who attended the meeting in which the announcement was made: “Domestic expansion of MLB has reached its limits, and the only thing left is overseas expansion. The WBC is just a test run. There’s a danger that Japan will be swallowed whole.”

From Nomo’s entrance into the majors in 1995 to that of Ichiro and Hideki Matsui in more recent years, Japan has been MLB’s most important market and source of players in terms of its global strategy.

Former Japanese Ambassador to the U.S. and Commissioner of Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) Ryozo Kato warns, “We must get past the glory of winning two consecutive WBC championships, and think about our next step.” His dream is to realize “a true world series,” not a competition to see who is the best of the major leagues, or even the WBC.

What would be the ideal shape of Japanese baseball — one that is unique and distinguishes itself from MLB strategy? Hidetoshi Kiyotake, general manager of the Yomiuri Giants and chair of NPB’s business operations committee says, “Both collaboration and competition are elements of Japan-U.S. relations. Further internationalization may lead to the unification of Asian baseball.”

In the three years leading up to the Beijing Olympics, the NPB invited Chinese baseball teams to participate in interleague games with Japanese farm teams and corporate teams. Teams such as the Yokohama BayStars and Yomiuri Giants partnered with teams in the Chinese league and acquired Chinese players.

In anticipation of the first MLB-led WBC in 2006, Japan spearheaded an effort to unify baseball in Asia the previous year through the Asia Series, an annual tournament played among teams from Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and China. The economic crisis forced the tournament sponsor to back out last year, and the tournament ended about 200 million yen in the red. The tournament is destined to be cancelled this year, the competition’s fifth, with enthusiasm waning even in China, Japan’s last and only hope.

Meanwhile, MLB has expanded its turf to include India, and is aiming to bring Japanese baseball under its wing sooner or later. It is in reaction to this global plan by the U.S. that the idea for a Japan-South Korean baseball championship to be played between the champion teams of both countries was conceived as an alternative vision for the future of Japanese baseball.

The final match of the second WBC, which took place this March between Japan and South Korea, garnered an average viewer rating of 36.4 percent in the Kanto region according to Video Research Ltd. It was clear that even without U.S. involvement, baseball fans would follow if heated, high-level games took place.

With the level of South Korean baseball now on a par with that of Japan, Japanese proponents of a Japan-South Korea championship hope that a showdown between Asia’s two top baseball teams would give them more clout in its dealings with MLB. Ultimately, Japan has no choice but to boost its presence as a member of the Asian region in order to avoid falling under MLB control.

The NPB executive committee comprised of representatives from Japan’s 12 professional baseball teams will soon be discussing plans for a game in November between the winner of the Japan Series and the Korean Series champions. Meanwhile, a proposal to include Japan-South Korea interleague games in the sequence of interleague games between the Japanese Central and Pacific leagues during the official season has also emerged.

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