Land of Rising Sun sees interest falling as Japanese stars depart

The Baltimore Sun

It started in 1995 when Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Hideo Nomo proved a Japanese pitcher could succeed in the major leagues.

Ichiro Suzuki eventually followed, and showed that a Japanese slap hitter can dominate here. Then came Hideki Matsui, who demonstrated that the Japanese can hit for power and drive in runs, too.

And this year major league baseball has been smacked upside the noggin by Boston Red Sox pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka and his multitude of pitches and arm angles.

A dozen years after the advent of Nomomania, the debate has ended.

Good Japanese players - good Asian players, for that matter - will be good anywhere, on any stage. Even in the big, bad majors.

"I think Americans in general are being humbled for incorrect perceptions in a lot of ways," Ted Heid, the Seattle Mariners director of Pacific Rim operations, wrote in an e-mail from Japan. "There has always been a few Japanese players that could have excelled over the years but never were given the chance."

It's great for Major League Baseball and its attempt at globalizing the sport. But what is the talent defection doing to baseball in Japan, which is every bit interwoven into the country's spirit the way it is in America? "Because a lot of good players have left Japan, we have to say there is a concern about the level of talent in Japanese baseball," said Hideki Okuda, veteran baseball writer for the Sports Nippon Newspaper in Tokyo. "But at the same time I believe more younger kids are seeing Daisuke and Ichiro and in the long run it is good in my opinion."

Robert Whiting, the accomplished author on Japanese culture and baseball, said there is no question that more Japanese players are going to flood into the major leagues within the next few years.

"The players see the adulation, the attention, the money going to Ichiro and Matsui and Matsuzaka and they want their share," he said.

It's possible if the popularity of Nippon Professional Baseball, Japan's equivalent of MLB, nosedives it will have more to do with Japanese ownership groups using their teams as promotional tools and not being as concerned about the on-field product. Whiting said they haven't put the money into player development, and now they aren't putting it into competing against the West for their own free agents.

And as more Japanese stars come to America, the popularity of MLB naturally rises there. Matsui's old team, the Yomiuri Giants, is like the "Red Sox, Yankees and Mets all rolled into one," according to Whiting. But TV ratings for the Giants have dropped more than 50 percent since Matsui left at the end of 2002, Whiting said.

Also, he said, Japanese network television will show about 40 Giants games this season, whereas 250 major league games are available in Japan.

And you can't blame the fans. Just imagine if Alex Rodriguez, Albert Pujols, Derek Jeter and Johan Santana left for another league. Imagine if Miguel Tejada and Brian Roberts and Erik Bedard abandoned the Orioles for a completely different brand of baseball. Wouldn't you be curious to see how they were adapting? If you wouldn't, your kids certainly would. And, therefore, isn't it possible that a few years from now there would be as many Yankees, Mariners and Red Sox fans in Japan as there are Giants, Swallows and Dragons fans? "It's pretty hard to say," Matsuzaka said through an interpreter. "I doubt kids are going to go one way or the other. They look up to both groups of players."

But Matsuzaka acknowledges that the time probably isn't too far off when the best high school players in Japan will eschew their country for the U.S.

"There probably won't be a great number, but there are players who may have that ability and have that possibility of making the jump straight over from high school," Matsuzaka said. "Looking forward, I think there is a good chance something like that will happen."

Yet there is one aspect here that should keep most amateur players dreaming of NPB and not MLB, at least initially.

"If the top [Japanese] players were developed in the USA and the American baseball system, they would not be the same players they are now," Okuda said. "They are good because they grew up in the Japanese system."

Matsuzaka, for instance, probably wouldn't be able to control six different pitches if he hadn't thrown so often in Japan's more intense pitching programs. Suzuki probably wouldn't be as well-rounded a player if he wasn't subjected to the constant drilling of fundamentals that's typical in his country.

Simply put, what sets most Japanese players apart in the big leagues is how they approach the game, and that's something intrinsic in their own baseball culture.

That's something MLB, its millions and its worldwide fame can't take away.

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