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Sunday, Feb. 10, 2008
Ruling in Powell case latest example of NPB ineptitude
"Only in Japan."
It is a common refrain for foreign residents who have been in this country for an extended period of time.
It usually comes about when something happens that just about anywhere else would both defy logic and be beyond belief.
Take, for example, the case of American pitcher Jeremy Powell and his contract conundrum with the Pacific League's Orix Buffaloes and Softbank Hawks.
As if it wasn't strange enough that he seemingly had deals with two teams at once, it only got weirder when the arbiter of the conflict — PL president Tadao Koike — became involved.
This is the guy who seemingly has the authority to put the matter to rest for good and let all the parties involved get on with their business.
But no, once again one of the lords of Japanese pro baseball found a way to further convolute matters.
Instead of issuing a firm ruling and ending the issue, Koike just prolonged it by coming up with some bogus judgment that punished Powell and the Hawks.
Koike claims Powell is the property of the Hawks — who checked with the PL office before attempting to sign the right-hander, and were told he was still a free agent — but then says the pitcher will be suspended for the first three months of the season, for "causing trouble between the clubs," unless the teams can reach a deal on compensation.
What a disgrace. This type of action makes the game here look so Mickey Mouse.
The only party more gutless than Koike is the Nippon Pro Baseball Players Association, which should have immediately filed a grievance on Powell's behalf.
Fat chance that will happen.
Many times over the years, the NPB players have been offered assistance by the powerful MLB Players Association but have passed on it.
The MLBPA has encouraged the NPB players to challenge in court the rule that requires players here to wait nine years for free agency, and offered to support them in the case.
In typical fashion, the NPB players declined.
No need to rock the boat when you could improve salaries for your entire membership over the long haul.
What troubles me most is the implication that Powell — the foreigner — should be sanctioned for supposedly causing inconvenience for a potential Japanese employer, without a thorough and impartial investigation being conducted.
As Powell tells the story, he was faxed a document by the Buffaloes that had no financial numbers on it.
He says he thought it was related to his work visa, so he signed it and faxed it back.
In the meantime, the proposed salary package the hurler and the last-place club had worked out started to unravel when the latter allegedly began to renege on what it had promised.
Again, long-timers in Japan have seen this kind of thing happen before.
Even when a deal appears to be signed and sealed, one party seems to find a way to justify extracting itself from it, often leaving the other shaking its head.
Best-selling author Robert Whiting, who has seen his share of these disagreements during his long association with Japan, claims culture is usually at the root of the dispute.
"Japanese have looser attitudes toward contracts than Americans," Whiting points out. "They place emphasis on verbal agreement, personal relationships, one's sincerity and the likelihood the situation that exists at the start of the deal will likely change.
"For Americans, a contract is written in stone. For Japanese, it is just a guideline toward a future relationship that is constantly evolving. You are expected to operate in good faith, but what's expected is often vague."
While the Buffaloes proceeded to dicker, they sent a provisional contract for Powell to the PL office that was not official.
At the same time, Powell's agent continued shopping his client's services and found an interested party in the Hawks. The sides reached a deal and submitted a signed pact to the PL office.
Seems pretty straightforward, doesn't it?
One team procedurally followed the rules, the other didn't, and the pitcher — as he is entitled to — tried to get the best deal he could.
So who gets penalized?
That's right, the team that acted properly and the pitcher.
The Hawks are then essentially told to give up some form of compensation for doing things the right way or lose a player they were counting on for the first half of the season.
Meanwhile, Powell is left in no man's land, wondering what he did to deserve all this.
"I don't know the details behind the Powell contract," Whiting says. "But the fact that they signed a contract, even one with no money specified, purely for visa purposes, meant there had to have been some sort of prior verbal agreement on terms, but one that was obviously vague enough to be misinterpreted. Mr. Koike's punishment seems hasty and premature."