Japanese firm swings for bigger share of baseball-equipment market

The Japanese are trying for a home run in the baseball-equipment business. The Mizuno Corporation of Osaka, Japan, which has already garnered 25 percent of the mid-priced and premium-priced baseball-glove market with its lightweight and flexible models, is now moving into most of the rest of the game's equipment.

The Japanese company, which had sales last year of $600 million and is the largest sports-equipment manufacturer in the world, has unveiled a new set of uniforms, baseball shoes, and protective gear. If they are as successful with the new equipment, future players of the national pastime may only be using American-made bats, balls, and hats.

The company's attempt to enter the uniform market has led it to introduce a series of uniforms that it claims are among the first designed with safety in mind. For example, the uniform worn by an infielder is designed so that the shins are padded to protect the fielder from the spikes of a sliding runner. And lightweight padding has been added to the chest area to protect runners who slide headfirst.

The company also has developed lightweight running gear with spikes that have been ''computer designed'' to help base runners approach the speed of a Ricky Henderson, the major-league base-stealing champion. In fact, Mr. Henderson, who was present when Mizuno and its American distributor, Curley-Bates Company of Burlingame, Calif., introduced the new gear for the press here, went to Japan to work with Japanese engineers designing the new shoes, which will be named after him. Mizuno currently has less than 5 percent of the baseball footwear market. However, Doug Kelly, vice-president for marketing at Curley-Bates, says company sales in this category were up 176 percent last year.

In addition, Mizuno is developing an improved protective vest for catchers, made with a new shock-absorbing material used by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to build the loading bay doors on the Space Shuttle. The new material was developed by an American company, Supracor Systems Inc., based in Palo Alto, Calif. But the Japanese will adapt it to sports use.

Mizuno made the nightly newscasts last year, when it introduced a host of computer and space-age-type products to the baseball market. For example, it produced a batter's helmet with a small communications system built outside of it, allowing the manager to talk directly to the baserunner or hitter. This system, which was tested on the professional (non-big-league) and college market last season, has now been streamlined so that it appears identical to a conventional batter's helmet; the receiver is inside. However, the US major leagues have not yet given teams the green light to use it. Curley-Bates vice-president Jim Darby said the company had been asked to resubmit the helmet during the league's mid-winter meeting.

Still another innovation, allowing the manager to communicate electronically his choice of pitches to the catcher, who then relays them on to the pitcher, will be resubmitted as well.

In order to develop its share in the baseball equipment market, Mizuno has aggressively courted baseball stars. It sends a mobile trailer to Florida and Arizona during the spring-training session, and custom-designs gloves for professional players. Today, 500 professionals use Mizuno gloves. This translates into further sales at the Little League, high school, and college level.

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