Baseball-crazed Japan rues brawn drain

To listen to fans at the Tokyo Dome, you would think the sword of Damocles was hanging over one of the world's most powerful sporting institutions: the Yomiuri Giants baseball club.

The sell-out crowd of 55,000 ought to have been relishing the near certainty of yet another Central League triumph to add to the long list of honors won by Japan's oldest and most popular team.

But as they chatted between innings last week over fried noodles and meals in bento boxes, many fans were more concerned about the possible loss of the team's favorite player and living legend Hideki Matsui to the US Major Leagues next year.

Most nations – Australia, Korea, the Dominican Republic – celebrate when their sports stars "make it" in America. But for fans in Japan the feeling is far more complicated.

The reaction to a growing exodus of top Japanese ballplayers to the US underscores just how ingrained baseball is in Japanese society. Despite its American origins, its roots are almost as deep, going back to the late 1800s. The white diamond is now as much a part of Japanese cultural fabric as sushi and tea ceremonies. During the season, a game from one of the country's two leagues airs on television every night of the week.

Alongside the rise of soccer, especially since the World Cup here in June, the departure of such greats as Ichiro Suzuki and Hideo Nomo – stars of the Seattle Mariners and Los Angeles Dodgers, respectively – is a source of consternation here.

"I sense danger," said Ayako Kodama, a 30-year-old waitress, who cheered so hard when her hero stepped up to the plate that she snapped her plastic orange clappers. "Matsui's the best, the biggest and the coolest. Japan has already lost so many other stars. It would be devastating if he were to go too."

Matsui would be the first big-name Giants player to join the Major Leagues – a move that commentators solemnly warn could devastate the fan base of the country's best-loved sport.

Given the insularity of Japanese baseball, few Americans are likely to have heard of Matsui, but he has been a celebrity in his own country since his high school days.

"Godzilla" – as the 28-year-old outfielder is affectionately known for his scary features and destructive batting style – is a power hitter on course this year to win the triple crown of top home run scorer, top batting average, and most runs batted in.

More importantly, he plays for the Giants, a team that is said to have the support of more than seven in 10 of Japan's baseball fans; the team that is backed by the world's biggest newspaper – the 10 million-plus circulation Yomiuri Shimbun; and the team that established and still runs the game in Japan.

Yet recent numbers point to a decline. For decades, the Giants games in the Central League guaranteed viewing figures of more than 20 percent, but last year this dropped to 15 percent as viewers switched to satellite channels showing Ichiro and others in the US.

Even Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has admitted that he now finds the Major Leagues more interesting than domestic baseball.

Kinya Nishimura, a sports commentator and former employee of the Yomiuri group, says the loss of Matsui would make an even bigger impact than that of Ichiro.

"Ichiro, Nomo, and most of the other top players who have gone to the US until now have been from the less glamorous Pacific League, but Matsui would be the first big Giants player to make the move. If he goes, it could spark a crisis."

Tsuneo Watanabe, the president of the Yomiuri empire, which has been built on the success of the Giants, has muttered darkly about the need for "sports patriotism." But he is also hedging his bets.

Still, many Japanese fans have been proud to see their heroes show that they are as good as – and, in many cases, better than – the best in the Major Leagues. This is especially true of young supporters, who have developed a love of the sport in the seven years since Nomo blazed the trail across the Pacific.

"I hope Matsui goes to the Major Leagues," says 10-year-old Giants fan Ryota Nambu as he strains to see his idol at the Tokyo Dome. "American teams are the best in the world. Even if he leaves Japan, I'll still be able to watch him every day on television."

Worries that Matsui will leave have been widespread since the end of last season, when he turned down the most lucrative contract ever offered to an athlete in Japan: a five-year deal worth more than $25 million.

Instead, he signed a one-year deal for $5.1 million – also a record – that appeared to allow him a last hurrah and a prolonged farewell to his fans before a move to the US. He has refused to comment on his intentions, but speculation about a move was fueled earlier this month, when New York Yankees assistant general manager Jean Afterman attended a game at the Tokyo Dome during which the slugger belted a 511-foot homer to the right-field bleachers.

Earlier this summer, Yomiuri signed a deal with the New York Yankees that will allow the two sides to exchange office staff and sell each other's products. Although the Yomiuri denies any connection, many see this as a prelude to a deal that would allow the Giants to rent Matsui to the Yankees.

That could be just the start of the shake-up sparked by a Matsui move, according to Fumihiro Fujisawa, president of the Association of American Baseball Research and an expert on the sport on both sides of the Pacific.

"If Matsui moves, I hope it will be the catalyst for big changes to make Japanese baseball more interesting. If not, many people will switch to the US Major Leagues or to soccer's J. League. A move could be a good chance for everyone."

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