Set to pull a pitcher? Stop yelling at the TV, start voting online.
TOKYO — In Japan, baseball fans may soon get a way to tell a struggling pitcher to hit the shower that is far more effective than yelling at the TV.
Devotees of the Fukuoka Hawks could soon decide whether to dump a pitcher through an online voting system that would display results on a stadium's center screen.
And the Rakuten Golden Eagles - which debut this year as the first new team to join Japan's pro leagues since 1954 - may allow viewers to watch players off-field in the dugout, the bullpen, or the locker room, simply through a click of the mouse as part of plans to webcast games live.
Such gimmicks may appear to be a minor diversion from the serious business of pro ball. But these attempts to make the game more appealing are bold bids by a new class of team owners to reverse a sharp decline in Japan's national pastime.
The idea of online voting to replace pitchers comes from Masayoshi Son, the president of Softbank, which bought the Hawks in December. He made waves in baseball circles recently by saying that while coaches ought to get the final say in selecting which players to use, they should also con- sider the fans' wishes, which could be conveyed by online polls shown on computers in dugouts.
Whether such a system will be introduced remains uncertain, but the suggestion has created a buzz in the conservative world of Japanese baseball. Shinya Sasaki, a TV baseball commentator and former pro player, scoffs at the plan. "That idea is nonsense," he says.
But he doesn't deny that Japanese baseball has slipped from the lofty mantle it occupied when he was on the field in the 1950s. "Young people are leaving baseball because the actual games played at stadiums have lost excitement," he says. "The tempo of games somehow needs to be sped up."
Indeed, some fans point out that online voting would only slow things down more. Diehard fan Yoko Tsuji says the idea is a weak marketing ploy that wouldn't make the game more interesting.
"In the end, coaches wouldn't listen to what the fans want anyway," she says.
Professor Yoshikazu Nagai, an expert on the sociology of baseball fans at Kansai University in Osaka, is also skeptical. "While new ideas are effective as an advertisement" for the game, he says, viewer voting to replace pitchers would be extremely difficult to regulate properly.
But some welcome the radical move. "It would be a very interesting idea if they could actually implement it," says one Hawks fan, adding that he can recall a number of instances when a pitcher in bad form should have been sent off earlier. "I would probably take part if they introduced it," he says.
These ideas come amid hard times for Japan's favorite sport.
Baseball's popularity has fallen as other sports, like soccer, which kicked off here in 1993, draw more fans.
"Considering its long history both before and after World War II, its power of influence has become relatively small because of a multiplication of [other types of] entertainment," says Mr. Nagai.
As top homegrown talent like Hideki Matsui and Ichiro Suzuki have moved on to US teams, empty stadium seats have become more obvious. While Matsui has won acclaim with the New York Yankees, his old team, the Yomiuri Giants, recorded last year their worst average TV ratings since 1965.
The decline in Japanese baseball also stems from the public's weariness with the Nippon Professional Baseball administrative organization, which is seen as stifling change. A number of bribery scandals have led to calls for reform of the draft system, while problems with the free-agent system and inflated attendance figures at ball parks have also hurt the game's image.
Two unorthodox companies are determined to burnish that image. Unlike the railway firms or newspaper conglomerates that have dominated baseball here for the past 50 years, Softbank and Rakuten run Internet companies. They are considered the new kids on the block by other club owners, but their entry has been welcomed by the public.
Since the two firms have been admitted to the clubby status of team owner, they have pressed for reforms to the way professional baseball is run. Mr. Son has urged stadiums to release actual attendance numbers. Last year, official figures, which include season tickets, showed that a crowd of 48,000 attended a game at the 32,000 capacity Fukuoka Dome.
Legend has it that Horace Wilson, an American professor teaching in Tokyo, introduced baseball to Japan about 1873. It quickly became popular at the high school and college level, and the yearly national high school tournament still rivals the Japan Series as a sporting event. The nation's first professional team was formed in 1934, and by the 1950s, baseball was the dominant spectator sport in Japan, developing a special place in its adopted culture.
Purists say that an opportunity for fans to alter game play via the Internet not only flies in the face of tradition, but raises philosophical questions about the nature of sport in general.
One key element that would be lost, they say, is the idea that athletes must face their opponents alone, acting in the arena according to their own wits, without help from outsiders.
"This interesting facet of sports would be destroyed" if viewers were so directly involved, says Kazuaki Sawada, a professor of education at Shiga University in western Japan.