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Saturday, Jan. 21, 2012

SPORTS SCOPE

Darvish deal yet another wakeup call for the NPB


Yu Darvish got his wish, the Texas Rangers got their man and the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters got their money.

Jason Coskrey

Hopefully, somewhere in there the NPB got a clue.

Once the Rangers agreed on a six-year $60 million deal with Darvish, the curtain finally dropped on the most gut-wrenching offseason NPB has seen in a long time.

In addition to Darvish, Hisashi Iwakuma, Tsuyoshi Wada, Chen Wei-yin, Norichika Aoki and Munenori Kawasaki are all headed to the U.S. in an incredible exodus of top-level talent which nearly also included Hiroyuki Nakajima.

On one hand, it's a testament to the level of talent present in Japanese baseball. It also, however, puts on display Japanese baseball's inability to hold on to that talent.

Baseball has a long and storied history in Japan, but unless changes are made, there is a danger of the NPB turning into a glorified feeder system for the majors — at least as it pertains to the upper echelon of players.

That's not to say there is a particular threat to Japanese baseball's viability, because there isn't and it would be irresponsible to suggest as such. The MLB and NPB will continue to coexist the way they have for years.

There is, however, a lot of room for improvement in Japan. NPB teams need to do a better job fostering a professional environment and treating their players more like stars than high-priced salarymen.

As interesting as it will be to see how Darvish fares in the majors, it would have been great for Japanese baseball to have him set the world on fire on this side of the Pacific. The MLB is currently the best baseball league in the world, but Japanese fans don't deserved to be shortchanged.

To put it more succinctly, NPB needs to give players like Darvish a reason to stay.

Major league players are used to things being first-class all the way, from travel, to lodging, to practice facilities. That's not always the case for NPB players.

Take for example the plight of the Tokyo Yakult Swallows (and their opponents), forced to stretch and warm up on a public field prior to games on days Jingu Stadium is being used by college players.

Now try to imagine a scenario in which the Los Angeles Dodgers are forced to perform pre-game activities in a public space while USC uses Dodger Stadium.

Try kicking the New York Yankees out of the Bronx for the type of three-week road trip the Hanshin Tigers deal with each year.

Major league teams also generally pay better. NPB teams can't compete with the size of MLB budgets. Then again, there are mechanisms in place in MLB to help lower-revenue teams stay competitive.

NPB teams, meanwhile, are too busy looking out for themselves to invest in bettering the game as a whole.

Japanese baseball can't set-up the MLB system — or anything close to it — but there has to be a way for the 12 clubs to come up with something where everyone benefits, which in turn can improve the environment for the players.

The MLB is the pinnacle of the sport, and there are some players who will always naturally gravitate there to follow in the footsteps of Masanori Murakami, Hideo Nomo, Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui.

That's something beyond Japanese baseball's control. What NPB can do, however, is make a more concerted effort to keep its best players in Japan.

Doing that, however, goes beyond money. It requires a change at the upper reaches of the game, from the way teams are run, to the way players are treated.

Until something changes, a majority of the best players will continue to leave Japan at the height of their popularity. Unless, of course, the NPB finally gives them a reason to stick around.



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