Japan's yen for baseball means dollars for company sponsors
Tokyo — Imagine, if you can, the following: Tom Monaghan, the self-made millionaire pizzamaker, buys the Detroit Tigers and promptly renames them after his company, the Domino Pizza Tigers. The Tigers proceed to the World Series as American League champs to face the National League's McDonald's Padres, who are owned by the fast-food burger chain. Following the Tigers' World-Series victory, Domino's offers its customers a celebratory three-day, 50 percent discount on all its pizzas.
A bit of science fiction? An absurd commentary on the increasing commercialization of American baseball? Of course, the scenario is, for any US fan, an unimaginable affront to the grand traditions of the game.
But no Japanese baseball fan would find it strange. Mixing baseball with corporate promotion is tradition in Japan. With few exceptions, the ball clubs themselves are money-losers, but the public-relations benefits they reap are enormous.
Only this past week the Seibu Lions clinched the title of the Pacific League, one of the two six-team leagues that make up professional ball here. The Seibu Group, the conglomerate that owns the ball club, promptly celebrated in classic fashion: Its employees hung colorful banners and posters in the Tokyo-area train stations owned by the Seibu Railway Company. The 280 Seibu Department Stores opened three days of bargain sales to mark the victory. The Seibu amusement park also announced that it would ope n its gates free of charge for one week.
Down in Osaka, the industrial city that dominates western Japan, both fans and businessmen are eagerly awaiting the day when the Central League-leading Hanshin Tigers clinch their pennant drive. An Osaka bank, in a study called ``The Economic Effects of Tigers Fever,'' predicts that a victory will bring in $184 million in additional income and will boost the local growth rate by 0.1 percent.
With one exception, Japanese baseball teams are named after their corporate parents. Of the 12 professional teams, five are owned by private railway and department store companies; four by food-and-beverage firms; two by newspaper publishing firms; and only one, the Hiroshima Carps, is co-owned by a municipality and a company -- in this case, the Hiroshima-based Toyo Kogyo auto firm that makes Mazdas.
This results in some rather colorful names. The Nippon Ham Fighters are owned by a pork producer. The Taiyo Whales are owned by the Taiyo Fishery Company. And the Yakult Swallows are the property of a health-drink manufacturer.
Corporate-style baseball has a long tradition in Japan. Amateur baseball was already a fixture of Japanese life when the first professional team was formed in 1936, followed soon by the formation of the first league. The first team, the Yomiuri Giants (owned by Yomiuri Shinbun, the nation's largest newspaper), is still the nation's favorite. The Giants, with an appeal comparable to the Yankees and Dodgers combined, dominated professional ball well into the 1970s, winning nine straight championships at o ne time.
The Seibu Lions are rapidly rising to rival the Giants, in the junior-circuit Pacific League at least, as a well-run, winning organization. The team used to be based on the southern island of Kyushu and changed owners three times before being bought by Seibu in 1978. Already a success in the field of sports-and-leisure activities, Seibu owner Yoshiaki Tsutsumi was determined to build a victorious -- and profitable -- baseball dynasty. In seven years, Seibu has won three league crowns and claims to earn a healthy profit.
The ball club fits seamlessly into Seibu's overall marketing strategy. A family outing to the ballpark, which was intentionally built without parking lots for cars, begins on Seibu's railway line -- the only way to get to the park. Every Seibu train is festooned inside with the Lions' team emblem and Lions posters reporting the outcome of the previous day's game. Before the game, the family may visit the neighboring Seibu amusement park. ``The team,'' says General Manager Yasuyuki Sakai, ``promotes the brandname of Seibu throughout Japan.''
What does all this mean to the men who run the base paths?
``We are part of a company, not a baseball team,'' says Leron Lee, a former major leaguer who is one of 22 foreigners (there is a two-per-team limit) currently playing on Japanese teams. The Sacramento, Calif., native is in his ninth year with the Lotte Orions, owned by a confectionary company.
``Most of our front office people come from the company,'' says Lee. ``The guy who is our general manager, last year might have been the gum-wrapping manager in the company.''
The practices for which Japanese companies are now famous in US business management schools have their baseball parallels. The men on the diamond may earn a higher-than-average salary, but their pay is well below what their American counterparts earn, averaging around $80,000 a year compared to the US's $350,000.
There is a players' association, but it is largely a paper tiger. Certainly a baseball strike would be impossible to imagine. Ballplayers are expected to exhibit the fabled virtues of the archetypal Japanese worker -- hard work and group loyalty. Though the season is shorter than in the US -- 130 games, compared to 162 -- when you add the championship Japan series, a string of post-season exhibitions, all-star games, and fan appreciation days, the players don't get a break till early December. One month
later, in mid-January, ``spring'' training begins.
Spring training, sometimes done on snow-covered fields, bears little resemblance to the ease of a Florida camp. ``When spring training starts,'' explains Seibu Lions first baseman Steve Ontiveros, a former Chicago Cub, ``We stay at the hotel together, we get up together, we go out, have our morning walk. We're together from 7 in the morning to 3 or 4 o'clock, as far as practice goes. After that we come back, eat dinner together. After dinner, at 7:30, we have a meeting for an hour and a half to two hour s and review what we did during that day.''
Fielding and batting practice before the game in the US is a time to chat with friends in the visiting club or to lazily shag flies in the outfield. Not in Japan, where pre-game practices last for a couple of hours and the coaches carefully watch their charges to see if they are displaying the proper ``fighting spirit.''
``You see most of their intensity right here in practice,'' explains Lee, ``and the game is kind of secondary. Their philosophy is that if they have a good practice, automatically they'll play good.''
Even ``lifetime employment'' of sorts can be found on the ball field. While a player with a sagging batting average or a ballooning earned-run average can find himself quickly in danger of being sent down to the minors, trades are a relative rarity. It is the norm for a player to spend his entire career with one team. After his playing days are over, the aging starter can usually expect a job with the company if he wants it.
Japanese fans' passion for baseball -- their No. 1 sport -- is indisputable, but it's a passion mediated by politeness. There is no need to worry about drunken brawls in the bleachers here. The fans behave with proverbial Japanese decorum. When a foul ball goes into the Seibu stands, a uniformed attendent rushes immediately to the spot. As the fan hands him the ball, the attendent thanks him and bows.