japanese baseball / yu darvish

My interest in Major League baseball has waned over the years - mainly because of the ruinous Angelos era of my hometown Orioles. Safe to say, baseball is firmly planted behind football and basketball in my mind.

The only time I really watch baseball on TV is during the playoffs...and during trips to Japan. Because of the 13 hr time difference, I always find it strange to wake up and watch a baseball game during breakfast. Of course, Japanese TV coverage and merchandising are dominated by the Red Sox (Dice-K), Yankees (Matsui), and the Mariners (Ichiro). While there are many other Japanese players on other MLB teams, these 3 superstars command all of the attention.

I find it intriguing to observe the different nuances within the Japanese game and their cultural interpretaion of "America's past time". Baseball has a long and rich tradition in Japan and their fandom is rabidly loyal. Greatest example can be found in the Hanshin Tiger fans' obsessively devoted cheering process. The Hanshin Tigers play the role of the Red Sox to Yomiuri Giants' role of the Yankees and their fans practice elaborate fight songs (and individual songs for each player) in the offseason and sing them line for line in unison nonstop during games with the support of thundersticks, handclapping and drums. The thundersticks are one of the props that have been imported by U.S. sports fans.

However baseball in Japan appears to be reaching a turning point. Ratings have been down and much of it has been explained by the migration of Japan's biggest stars to the U.S. Underneath it all, appears to be a structural problem in the NPB (Nippon Professional Baseball) league in efforts to deal with the MLB effect and a tighter economy. First of all, corporations own all of the teams and operate independently of each other - meaning none of these corporations cooperate with each other for the benefit of the league. No revenue sharing, centralized broadcasting and no concerted effort to market the league with proper advertising, licensing, merchandising...or even a decent website with live games, highlights and news. At times there appears to be more marketing of MLB than the NPB. This makes it even more difficult to keep Japanese stars who already aspire to prove themselves in America.

A lengthy ESPN article discusses these developments in light of the rise of new Japanese phenom Yu Darvish. Darvish has an interesting mixed background - half-Iranian and half-Japanese (his parents met in college in the U.S.). Some teams refused to draft him because of his mixed background. After landing with the Nippon Ham Fighters, Darvish has dominated the NPB, graced fashion magazine covers and enjoyed immense popularity.

Although Darvish doesn't become a free agent for 5 years, the Fighters will likely consider negotiating sooner with American teams for the top dollar (or yen). And it is inevitable that one of the American teams will spend the money (likely $75 million to begin talks) in an effort to grab the next Dice-K. Darvish has the superstar ability to elevate the popularity of baseball in Japan by himself. Being king of the hill in Japan with all the perks of popularity will do well to stroke his ego but can it turn away an ultra-lucrative contract from, say the Yankees and the chance to compete against the best? I say its only a matter of time before he's MLB-bound.


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