Global MLB is on the horizon

Originally Published: March 2, 2007
By Tim Kurkjian | ESPN The Magazine

At some points this season, Hideki Matsui might hit a home run off Boston's Daisuke Matsuzaka, who will be replaced by Hideki Okajima, who will finish the game won by Yankees starter Kei Igawa. Three thousand miles away, Ichiro will bounce a single past the dive of White Sox second baseman Tad Iguchi, scoring Kenji Johjima with the winning run for the Mariners.

Kei Igawa
AP Photo/Robert F. BukatyKei Igawa is projected to be the Yankees' fourth or fifth starter.
The wave of Asian players is upon us, and from all indications, that wave is going to get bigger. The success of Japanese players in Major League Baseball has extended the wave to Korea, which brought Chan Ho Park and others, and to Taiwan, which brought Chien-Ming Wang. The championship by Japan in the 2006 World Baseball Classic helped prove what Bobby Valentine -- a former major league manager who now manages the Chiba Lotte Marines -- has been saying for years: The Japanese really can play baseball. Three years ago, Valentine said every starting position player in Japan could make a big league team.

"Now, it's at least that good,'' Valentine said. "Instead of just making the roster, a lot could be starting in the U.S. But people don't believe that because people [presumably MLB scouts and executives] come over here and see a guy for only three games and say, 'He can't play.' But you see a guy for 30 games, they would say, 'I'd like to have that guy.'"

So MLB takes them. Not at an alarming rate, but each year, more than the year before.

"At one time, Japanese players went to the major leagues to see if they could play," Valentine said. "At one time, American players went to Japan to make money. But the shoe is on the other foot now. The Japanese know they can play there. They come back and say, 'It's not as tough as you think.' They go because the money is so different."

Japanese players have improved greatly over the last 10 to 15 years (Korean and Taiwanese players haven't made that drastic jump; Korean players, for the most part, lack the physicality of Japanese, and, of course, American players). Back then, only a few Japanese pitchers, and even fewer position players, were ready to play in the major leagues. Now, Japanese players, led by Hideki Matsui, are bigger and stronger. So are the pitchers.

"Pitching is a relative thing," Valentine said. "In the States, pitching has gotten faster, not better. In Japan, pitchers have gotten faster, but they've remained consistently sound in fundamentals."

The influx of Asian players -- mostly from Japan, and to a much lesser degree, Korea and Taiwan -- has helped invigorate the American game. Matsui is popular in New York because of his production and his work ethic. Ichiro is fashionable across the major leagues because of his style of play, especially his speed and defense. If Matsuzaka, with his five different breaking balls, is as good as most everyone says, he will be revered in Boston.

"I think they've invigorated the managers and the coaches in the major leagues," said Valentine. "They see that the game can be played better than it is being played. They are invigorated when an outfielder charges a ball, and it doesn't get past him and roll to the wall. They're invigorated not in the new things, but because it's a renaissance. They're seeing the little things done well that all those managers and coaches learned growing up."

Major league teams love adding new players who really can play. Japanese, Korean and Taiwanese players get to play in the best league in the world, and they get more money to do so. Ichiro is a mythical figure in Japan, not just because of his spectacular first six seasons in the major leagues, but because he played with such energy and pride in leading Japan to the WBC title.

"[Matsui] still is the standard-bearer in Japan. He was the great player from the great team,'' Valentine said. "He's ever present here. There is no one like him when it comes to publicity. Ichiro has his niche -- he's the base- hit prodigy. Matsui has his niche -- he's the power prodigy. Matsuzaka will have his niche -- he'll be the pitching prodigy.''

"I think they've invigorated the managers and the coaches in the major leagues. They see that the game can be played better than it is being played. … They're seeing the little things done well that all those managers and coaches learned growing up."
-- Bobby Valentine

Matsuzaka has a chance to be as big in Japan as Matsui or Ichiro (but, Valentine says, Wang is bigger relatively in Taiwan, a country of about 25 million people, than any player in Japan, a country of about 125 million) because of what he did on that country's biggest stage: high school baseball. In Japan, the marquee high school tournament is bigger than professional baseball; it is on par with playing in the Olympics. And Matsuzaka became a part of folklore in Japan by throwing a no-hitter in that tournament, and pitching three days in a row.

However, says Valentine (and others who know Japanese baseball), "There is a dilution factor. Iguchi played for a world championship team [the White Sox], but there are no takers [advertisers] for him. Johjima is the first catcher to go the major leagues, and over here, it's ho-hum. There isn't enough room for five or six. Japanese is a branded society. They're only buying the best brand. Women in Japan walk down the street carrying the best handbags -- not one that looks like the best, but they got it from K-Mart, or even Bloomingdale's."

Advertisers in Japan and the U.S. ride the wave of the success of Ichiro and others, but MLB teams don't benefit as much as one might think. All of Matsui's and Iguchi's games are televised in Japan, but that TV revenue doesn't go directly to the Yankees and White Sox. It goes into a pool of money that is distributed to all 30 major league teams, as will the revenue generated from when Matsuzaka's games are televised in Japan. The Red Sox will generate some revenue by marketing Matsuzaka, but mostly, said an MLB source, it will be through signage, "and probably won't result in a significant number.''

But why do Japanese owners let their best players, their branded players, get away? Mostly, it's about those players wanting to play with and against the best players in the world. Ichiro made less money in his first year with the Mariners than he was making in Japan. Same with Johjima. But they also leave because of the money. There are 12 teams in the Japanese leagues and, according to a source close to the situation, all 12 are losing money.

Japan has the second-greatest economy in the world, and the Japanese really know how to run a business, but they apparently don't run baseball teams as well. They have control over player salaries, but because they have antiquated stadium deals like MLB had in the 1950s, they can't generate revenue. The Yomiuri Giants are the Yankees of Japan, even though they haven't been very good on the field for five years. They routinely draw 40,000 to 45,000 for every game at the Tokyo Dome, but since they're paying $45 million a year rent to play in the Dome, and have limited signage, they're still losing money.

The Japanese apparently don't do a good enough job marketing their own players, and they don't do TV deals well, either. Most every night, in a 12-team league, there are 10 games on TV (sometimes the home and road team broadcast the same game), but there are no games on Monday because that day is left open as a rainout date. Why not, some suggest, call Monday night, "Baseball Night In Japan,'' and televise and market that one game?

Because teams are losing money, they are forced to sell some of their best players to MLB teams, as the Seibu Lions did: The $51.1 million they received from the Red Sox for the right to negotiate with Matsuzaka was needed by an owner in financial trouble. Will many more like Matsuzaka follow?

"It all depends on what the Japanese baseball structure does," Valentine said. "If it does what all good businesses do -- raise revenues, negotiate TV contracts, market the players -- then the players won't leave for more money."

And what if they keep leaving?

"It's going to become the Negro Leagues,'' Valentine said. "Given the infrastructure they have, baseball is No. 1 in all three countries. Japan brought baseball to Korea and Taiwan. If the incentive is there to keep leaving Japan, baseball is going to become a one-hemisphere sport. MLB will be overwhelmed with players. That's good for teams, but bad for the Players' Association. They need to change the model. Baseball doesn't need more players, it needs more good markets, more stadiums filled with 50,000 people a night."

Or is it the Japanese baseball model that needs to change?

Japan has no traditional minor league system. After high school, thousands of good players, who aren't good enough to continue on to professional ball in Japan, are basically done playing. Plus, Japan allows only four non-Japanese players on its 25-man roster. So, critics contend, if Japan wants to make its game healthier and prevent its best players from leaving for Major League Baseball, it needs to examine its own game.

Bobby Valentine
AP Photo/Koji SasaharaBobby Valentine, center, expects Asia to play a big role in making the majors a truly international league.
The Koreans and the Taiwanese are roughly 15 years behind Japan in the business of baseball, but they have the potential to gain quickly. Both countries have reached out to MLB to inquire on how its league is run. Korea has similar issues to those of Japan: big companies running teams and not caring perhaps as much as they should about losing money. Taiwan has had issues with gambling in its professional league, the Chinese Professional Baseball League. The national team appears to be more popular than the professional league.

MLB, a $5 billion industry, knows how to run a league. It is debating whether it should, at least eventually, teach the Japanese how to run a league by forming a true global major league that includes Japanese teams. Valentine believes such a concept is inevitable and thinks it could happen in as early as five years.

"There would be an Asian Division," he explains. "They won't play against the U.S. teams, just like the NL West usually doesn't play against the AL East. In a playoff series, they would play against each other. There would have to be MLPA initiation for that to happen. They're not going to allow U.S. teams to go play in Tokyo. But 39 percent of the All-Stars last year came from a different country than the U.S. What does it matter what country they are from if they're not from your country?''

A global Major League Baseball eventually will come. In the meantime, the Asian wave continues to grow.

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.

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