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Tuesday, April 3, 2012

SPORTS SCOPE

NPB has much to gain from Saito's star power


Masanori Ishikawa was two outs from throwing the first no-hitter in Opening Day history on Friday. That same night, Kazuki Yoshimi came within six outs of opening the year with a perfect game.

JASON COSKREY

Ishikawa and Yoshimi had exceptional, and quite nearly historic, opening games. Still, they were secondary in the eyes of the media, which trained most of its attention on Yuki Saito.

The second-year right-hander for the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters was the first pitcher not named Yu Darvish to open the season for the Fighters since 2007, and did so in sublime fashion.

Saito threw a complete game, striking out nine and yielding one run while allowing four hits. Because he walked two batters in the first inning and gave up a hit in the fourth, the latter stages of his outing weren't quite as compelling as Ishikawa's or Yoshimi's, but that's neither here nor there.

That he got the most face-time in news reports and adorned the front pages of a large number of national sports papers was the important thing for NPB.

Japan has lost a number of its best players to MLB in recent years. Hisashi Iwakuma, Norichika Aoki, Munenori Kawasaki, Tsuyoshi Wada and Yu Darvish all left after the 2011 season alone.

Which brings us to Saito.

He initially rose to fame as the "Handkerchief Prince," the architect of a captivating triumph at the 2006 National High School Baseball Championship with Waseda Jitsugyo before later starring at Waseda University.

On Dec. 9, 2010, over 8,000 fans filed into Sapporo Dome just to watch him don a Fighters uniform for the first time in an unveiling televised across Japan. He was then tailed by a large media contingent and even larger crowds during his first spring training.

Saito didn't look much like a phenom in the first half of his rookie season. Still, he made it onto the All-Star team, easily winning a fan vote after being left off the initial squad. He didn't earn a spot on merit, the fans simply wanted to see him.

That's exactly the type of player Japanese baseball needs.

News photo
In the spotlight: Yuki Saito may be Japanese baseball's most popular player. KYODO

One of the things the sport finds itself lacking at the moment is a crossover superstar. The 1980s had Sadaharu Oh and Shigeo Nagashima thrilling packed houses at Korakuen Stadium; the 1990s was the era of Kazuhiro Kiyohara and Hideki Matsui (the latter of whom ironically helped fuel the current era of migration); and the first decade of this century saw the rise of Daisuke Matsuzaka and Darvish.

Presently, as defections rock the upper crust, NPB finds itself with lots of extremely popular players, but few who can appeal to the most casual of fans.

Saito can and he does.

Saito's star status, which stems from the lasting images of past heroics, creates an interesting juxtaposition between himself and NPB's top pitchers.

Friday, the spotlight shone almost solely on him, giving merely cursory glances at the superb performances of proven players Ishikawa and Yoshimi.

Similarly there are many other players far better than Saito, but it's the Prince who moves tickets.

NPB needs to capitalize on Saito's popularity and use it as a starting point for beginning to forge an environment that entices stars to stay and improves the game, especially as Japanese soccer's popularity grows.

Saito is NPB's Tiger Woods without the qualifying results. His popularity has staying power, and nights like Friday will only cause his legend to grow.

If nothing else, Saito can bring a tremendous amount of attention to the game. Something NPB would be foolish to waste.



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