Pro Clubs to Bar Draft-dodgers from Returning to Japan

Junichi Tazawa

Junichi Tazawa

For years now, fans, reporters, and officials of Japanese professional baseball have been fretting over the damage – real and potential – that the globalization of the sport is doing to Japan’s professional clubs.

While fans on both sides of the Pacific have been pleased to see the success of Nomo, Ichiro, Matsui, Matsuzaka, Okajima, Fukudome, Iwamura, et al., their absence has been felt keenly by their former clubs and the trend they’ve set is often listed among the signs of the apocalypse for Nippon Professional Baseball rather than as the wonderful international friendship-building move Major League Baseball likes to promote.

To be sure, NPB clubs are nowhere near being able to compete head to head with their Major League counterparts in pecuniary terms.  As MLB makes savvy, assertive moves to build its brand internationally, the disparity grows.  To put it bluntly, Major League Baseball is not only the undisputed top tier of baseball, it is also a vastly better-run business, employing an organization, unity of purpose, and progressive approach to marketing and promotion of an entirely different order from the selfish, quasi-feudal overconfidence born of NPB’s being the biggest, and at times only, show in the land for decades.

The question then becomes how pro baseball in Japan can cope with its own on-field success, for it is, ironically, the rising level of play in Japan that has led to Japanese clubs finding it harder to keep talent.  It is no longer a big deal for a Japanese player to head over to the Majors.  On the other side, though, Japanese clubs are still not bringing top players the other way.

Since the mid-1950s, NPB has placed a limit on the number of foreign players any team can keep on its active roster, with one of the arguments being that such a limit would give more homegrown players a chance to develop and would prevent any club (viz. the early ’50s Giants) from using raw pruchasing power to import the core an overwhelmingly dominant side.  To be fair, although it may be time to revise this quota, the system appears to have worked.  The issue facing NPB now is not at all an influx or the performance of foreign players.

The issue now is competing for the homegrown talent with overseas clubs and their bigger bank accounts and top dog status.

Given its history and approach to the business side of baseball, Japanese pro baseball’s solution to this new challenge is not surprising.  Increase revenue?  No discernible progress there.  Aggressively court some big foreign names to grab the interest of a fan base more interested in celebrity than teams or the game itself? Not seeing it.  No, the clubs’ answer was to stick the blame and the punishment squarely on the players.

Thus, NPB has joined with the corporate (or industrial) leagues and even universities to prohibit any player who bypasses the Japanese amateur draft to deal with foreign clubs from playing for any NPB team for three years after his return to Japan and for corporate or university teams for two years.

The move was made in response to the decision of top prospect Junichi Tazawa to skip the draft and deal directly with MLB clubs, thus freeing himself from the seven years of service that would be required of him once he entered the Japanese system (no longer nine, as the Japan Times article says.)

Aside from seemingly casting the NPB-MLB discrepancy as a problem that’s primarily the fault of players, the move is the worst kind of self-destructive trade barrier.  What good is going to come from barring good, even top players, presumably experienced players by the time they return to Japan, from playing if teams want them?  Are many young prospects with dreams of a professional baseball career going to pass up their chance at the greater challenge, fame, and money of the Major Leagues because of a possible future punishment?  Doubtful.  The prospects in question will almost all be between 18 and 22 years old and will obviously think they have a shot, at least, at a spot on an MLB squad.  The period of ineligibility smacks of vindictiveness and will hurt NPB even more than losing talent to the MLB will.

Think of the players who would have been ineligible: No Shinjo on the 2006 Fighters, for example.  He helped fill seats, flog merchandise, and bring Nippon Ham their first championship in ages.  Would baseball have been better off if he’d simply retired after coming back to Japan?

This move is typical of the myopic, defensive, even petty approach too often taken by NPB bigwigs.  If any ban is instituted, it should be on those who insist on going to great lengths in a vain attempt to turn the clock back twenty years while denying the reality of the present and taking no serious steps to prepare for the future.

  • C

    Even under the new rules, how would Shinjo have been restricted? It’s for players who bypass the NPB draft, not go over after earning free agency.

  • A very good and very true point, C. I got a bit overwrought there. My apologies.

  • Ken

    Not to mention, this is probably illegal. Someone is eventually going to challenge it in the courts as an unfair trade practice.

  • Ken

    Tazawa will soon be part of the Red Sox organization, if things go well. He’ll be staring in AA (Portland, Maine).

  • I’m glad it worked out for him – now let’s hope he doesn’t get bit in the ass by this stupid rule.

    If he makes it up to the Bigs, I’m thinking Lou Dobbs ought to turn his ire on the Red Sox and their imported, lower-maintenance pitching staff. As really only one or two MLB teams can exist in any large way in Japan, and everyone who cares becomes a fan of one or the other, the Red Sox look like they’re gunning for a permanent presence.

  • Ken

    Lou Dobbs ought to turn his ire on the Red Sox and their imported, lower-maintenance pitching staff.

    How many Cubs pitchers were born in Chicago?

  • Interstate commerce doesn’t seem to bother Mr. Dobbs. Going from outside of Chicago to inside Chicago would only be considered importing by the really hardcore anyway.

  • Ken


    How many Cubs pitchers were born in Chicago?

    The answer is a number, not babble.

  • It’s irrelevant. You’re asking the wrong question. The right question, the relevant question, would be, “How many Cubs pitchers were signed out of foreign leagues?”

    We’re talking about imports, after all. Shifting the focus to a team other than the Red Sox and changing the topic don’t change anything about the Red Sox offending Lou Dobbs by bringing in foreign pitchers to steal jobs from hardworking American pitchers.

    If it makes you happy, though, there are no Chicago-born pitchers on the Cubs’ active big league roster. There are three pitchers born in Illinois and seven foreign-born pitchers – two each from Canada and the D.R. and three from Venezuela.

  • Ken

    The right question, the relevant question, would be, “How many Cubs pitchers were signed out of foreign leagues?”

    How many? Let’s see an integer.

  • 0.

    All of the Cubs’ foreign-born pitchers came up through the major-league system (I’d count Tazawa in that class, as he wasn’t playing pro ball here.)