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Sunday, July 8, 2012

BASEBALL BULLET-IN

Give Kato four more years at NPB helm


A Kyodo News item came out of the blue on July 3, indicating Nippon Professional Baseball commissioner Ryozo Kato's term was to have expired June 30, and he is now in limbo, awaiting word about whether he will be extended.

Owners of the 12 NPB teams are scheduled to meet next Thursday to discuss the matter and, according to the report, how commissioners are selected.

One would think they would already know that but, then again, considering how a lot of Japanese baseball czars in the past were chosen, then wound up as figureheads who did not really do anything to advance the game here, it is right to question how they were picked in the first place.

I've been covering the sport here for 36 years and think Kato is by far the best commissioner the NPB has had, at least since 1976. His love of the game is unquestionable, and his experience as the Japanese ambassador to the United States which included many trips to America's ballparks, added to his qualifications to become the NPB boss.

Under Kato's watch, which began in 2008, there have been some positive changes in the Japanese game, such as the consolidation of the Central and Pacific League offices, umpires and administration under one roof, reversing the ball-strike count to conform to international standards, announcing starting pitchers in both leagues 24 hours prior to games and getting all 12 teams to use the same baseball.

Kato was the guest at a meeting of the Foreign Sportswriters Association of Japan a couple of years ago and told us he is doing his best to improve Japanese baseball, although he lacks the power of Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig, and he found it more difficult to work with the 12 CL and PL club owners and the Japan Professional Baseball Players Union than he had previously anticipated.

There was criticism of Kato last year following the March 11 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami and subsequent Fukushima nuclear power plant crisis, when he did not step in immediately to decide on whether or not Opening Day should be postponed and, if so, by how many days or weeks.

To refresh your memory, the 2011 openers were originally scheduled for March 25, exactly two weeks after the disaster. As the uncertain nuclear power situation grew more threatening in the following days, Pacific League owners wisely decided to delay Opening Day until April 12.

A few Central League owners, however, wanted to go ahead as scheduled with the March 25 lid-lifters, but when they realized that was unreasonable, they decided to try for the first week of April. Eventually they gave in to that idea as well, and both leagues eventually began play on April 12.

It seemed to me and many others the commissioner could have jumped in right at the beginning, ordered the April 12 opening date and avoided a lot of controversy and confusion. Whether the commissioner has that power may be another matter but, if he doesn't, he certainly should have it.

Japanese sports newspapers have suggested as many as five of the six Pacific League owners are not in favor of extending Kato's term and will make their feelings known at the upcoming meeting. But, do they have someone else — someone better — in mind?

I hope the owners at their gathering on Thursday will work out the selection process for future commissioners, that Kato will be appointed to a second term and that he will step up and inspire more positive changes in Japanese baseball over the next four years.

Here are some suggestions for things that should be attended to in the term of the next NPB commissioner, whether it be Kato or someone else:

- Require Japan to participate in the 2013 World Baseball Classic. The defending two-time champion should be in there.

- Change the name of Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) to Japan Major League Baseball (JMLB), in order to establish a better identity.

- Keep the standard baseball but change it again to make it more hitter-friendly (sorry, pitchers) and the games more lively and exciting. Adopting the major league ball would seem to be the easiest way to achieve this.

- Get rid of the system of making up rainouts at the end of the season, playing them instead as the season goes along, even if it means scheduling doubleheaders, which the players association opposes.

- Review the posting system by which Japanese players, short of free agency service time, are made available to major league teams.

- Try to revive the post-season Nichi-Bei Yakyu series of MLB All-Star teams (or single teams) visiting Japan.

Obviously, being the commissioner of Japanese baseball is not an easy job, but it is critical there be a strong leader at the top who has the support of the leagues, teams and their players and will tackle the problems head-on with practical ideas.

***
Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com



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