Less than 24 hours after Kazuhisa Ishii left for the United States to begin his winter workout in Hawaii, his club, the Swallows, announced they had accepted a bid for the left-hander's negotiationg rights.
When Yakult "posted" Ishii, the club suggested that no amount less than
¥1 billion would be acceptable, although there were reports that the Los
Angeles Dodgers had bid $11.5 million (about ¥1.5 billion) and the winning
bid is reportedly in that neighborhood.
No one expected the Swallows to stand on pride should the highest bid fall short of a billion. Until he signs a contract with the high bidder, the pitcher is still under bond to the Swallows and, unlike you or I, has no right to seek employment elsewhere in his chosen profession. But should the left-hander fail to come to terms with his prospective club, his indentured servitude would still expire a year from now, and he would be a free man.
Had the Swallows refused Ishii's wishes to play in the states, as the Hanshin Tigers are doing with side-armer Tetsuro Kawajiri, baseball reactionaries would be singing Yakult's praises but no one would lift a finger to compensate the Swallows a year later when he walked to the States under his own power so to speak. Had Ishii waited until free agency, the Swallows would have been compensated only if he stayed in Japan. And then their compensation would be limited to 1 1/2 times the pitcher's 2002 salary--far less than the amount Swallows' executives are now planning to put in the bank.
While the posting system enables Japanese clubs to enrich themselves by selling players before they can go to the majors as free agents, you would be hard pressed to find anyone with a good word to say about it.
Most major league teams don't like the posting system; many Japanese owners don't like it; and while it can shorten the time it takes for a Japanese pro to get to the majors, the players don't like it because it reduces their negotiating choices.
The system puts "proven" Japanese talent beyond the reach of most major league clubs, thus increasing the gap between rich and poor teams. The Seattle Mariners' winning bid for the rights to Ichiro Suzuki was $13.125 million--a bargain-basement price for a player of Ichiro's standing, so future bids are likely to stay high even for players of somewhat lesser standing, such as Ishii.
As more and more Japanese players move to the majors, fewer teams will complain about the risk of signing Japanese talent, but right now it's still perceived as an avenue only rich clubs can walk down.
Some Japanese owners, especially Tsuneo Watanabe of the Yomiuri Giants, have derided the posting system for making it easier for Japanese talent to flow to the majors. Certainly, the posting system gives hope to those players who are far from free agency.
When players were granted the right to free agency after the 1993 season--largely through the agency of Watanabe--there was little thought that Japan's baseball serfs would someday seek a living in a different kingdom. However, when Hideo Nomo established that Japanese stars could succeed at the major league level, it became inevitable that players would use their new rights to abandon not only the teams that owned them but their homeland as well.
Once the way to the majors was marked and the road paved, it became clear that teams in Japan would be forced to find some alternative way to secure compensation.
The Chiba Lotte Marines were forced to trade Hideki Irabu to the San Diego Padres or risk losing him for nothing.
In order to save face, the Marines announced the trade as a "gift" to Irabu. The Kintetsu Buffaloes had done the same thing when Nomo retired in 1994 and then appeared as a major league free agent a day later. They were helpless to stop him, so the club gave Nomo's move to the Dodgers their blessing.
For the players, the posting system is not much of an alternative. In exchange for a kind of free agency, they are subjected to what Nomo's agent Don Nomura calls a "slave auction."
The players' union wants to give players the choice of negotiating with more than one team, something that would lead to more competitive contracts with bidding teams. As it is, once a Japanese team posts a player and accepts the high bid, that player has 30 days to work out a contract with the major league club or return to his old club and wait until next year.
No one likes the current system, but whatever modifications are made there is no question that anything less than massive changes in the context of the Japanese game can prevent top stars from leaving.
Free agency cannot be taken away now. And as long as working conditions in the majors are better and the quality of play higher, the best players will constantly be drawn toward the States.
It has nothing to do with patriotism. Professional athletes have their jobs not only because they are athletic but because they are accustomed to pushing themselves to the limit. Competition is their life and their livelihood.
As fans, we don't embrace players who don't care about winning. So how can we dismiss players who strive to compete at the highest level possible?
Since free agency is now ingrained in Japanese baseball's landscape, some players will always be ready to move on to different situations.
Although the establishment faces an enormous uphill challenge, it is possible that someday in the not-too-distant future, Japanese baseball could be considered the equal of that in any other country. But this won't happen without drastic change here--something that will require a paradigm shift.
In "The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract," baseball analyst Bill James argues that the current major league home run explosion is largely due to shifts in thinking.
For years, players were taught not to lift weights or try to drive outside pitches. The realization that both can be tremendously productive has changed the game enormously.
Until now, Japanese teams have competed to provide the best "Japanese baseball." That has meant an effort to reproduce the country's glorious baseball past by regurgitating the "truths" that have sustained the game over the last 90 years or so.
There is much to be said for the techniques employed by Japanese baseball, but it is high time to have a hard look at the game's doctrines and stop pretending that today's game is supposed to be a tribute to the past.
For example, complete games are great when they happen, but nobody gives a pennant to the team with the most complete games. Stop pretending that a complete game is a test of virtue.
Here's an idea. Let's punish the next manager who says the key to success is complete games. Just beat the heck out of him with a stick. Same goes for sacrifice bunts.
In World War II, the Imperial Japanese Army's doctrine was backward looking, emphasizing a tradition of fighting spirit at the expense of training in logistics and firepower.
Like it or not, Japanese baseball is now in a war. If the people in the game don't stop looking toward the past for answers, the past is all they'll have to look forward to.
The Hot Corner appears each Thursday in The
Daily Yomiuri .