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Pitcher Matsuzaka’s Transfer to MLB Becomes Sizzling Topic
[Sports] November 17 , 2006
The issue of the transfer of one of Japan’s top professional baseball players to the United States has become a sizzling topic among the Japanese public. The player in question is pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka, who has expressed a desire to play in the US major leagues. On November 15 Matsuzaka’s team, the Seibu Lions, announced that the Boston Red Sox have acquired the right to negotiate with him. According to that announcement, the Red Sox are willing to pay a transfer fee of $51.11 million (approximately \6 billion) to the Seibu Lions in order to get Matsuzaka on board. Compared with the figures for the total annual salaries of the 30 Major League Baseball teams reported at the beginning of this year’s season, this sum is greater than the amounts announced by five teams, including the Florida Marlins, which had the lowest at $15 million.
In other words, in order to acquire the 26-year-old Japanese pitcher, the Red Sox decided that they were willing to pay a sum that is 3.4 times the total annual salaries of the Florida Marlins players. Moreover, that $51.11 million is only the transfer fee that will go to the Seibu Lions; it does not include Matsuzaka’s own annual salary, which, if the negotiations are realized, is estimated to reach about $10 million.
The Red Sox offer was much larger than expected, and the Matsuzaka transfer drama is evidence that Japanese players have now achieved top star status in the United States, the birthplace of baseball and the “baseball kingdom” of the world. That is the reason why Matsuzaka’s transfer to the majors has become such a hot topic in Japan. Of the nation’s three largest dailies, the Yomiuri Shimbun, Asahi Shimbun, and Mainichi Shimbun, the Yomiuri and Asahi both reported the news at the top of the front pages of their November 15 evening editions, and almost all newspapers, including these two, covered the news in detail on their front, sports, and domestic news pages. In addition, television stations also prominently reported the transfer in their regular news programs.
The Posting System as a Transfer Method
The first Japanese star in the major leagues was the pitcher Hideo Nomo, who transferred to the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1995. Nomo became a courageous pioneer by moving over the Pacific to what was, for young Japanese fascinated with baseball, the most glittering stage of them all. At that time, however, there were no rules for transfers from Japan to the MLB, and the move by Nomo, and the pitcher Hideki Irabu who followed him, created all kinds of problems. For that reason, in 1998 the pro baseball commissioners of Japan and the United States reached agreement on the posting system as a rule for the transfer of Japanese players to the United States.
Under the posting system, a Japanese player who wishes to move to the MLB before acquiring free agent status, which allows him to freely choose which team he wants to play for, is allowed to transfer only if he receives the approval of his existing team. An MLB team acquires the right to negotiate with the player through a system of bidding to the player’s existing team. If the transfer negotiations are successful, then the bidding fee that was offered is paid to the Japanese team. The sum of $51.11 million dollars offered by the Red Sox, the highest ever under this system, acquired them the right to negotiate with Matsuzaka. “Godzilla” Hideki Matsui, who plays for the New York Yankees, moved there from the Yomiuri Giants by exercising his FA rights, but his case was unusual. Almost all of the popular Japanese players in the MLB at the moment, including Ichiro Suzuki, the Seattle Mariners outfielder known for his deft hitting and accurate throwing, have utilized the posting system for their MLB transfers.
Delight at Astronomical Transfer Fee and Expectations of Matsuzaka
To the average Japanese salary worker, who, it is said, can expect to earn something like \200 million in his entire lifetime, the transfer fee offered for Matsuzaka by the Red Sox is simply awesome. Moreover, his new stage is going to be the MLB, the greatest in the world. For not only baseball fans but many ordinary Japanese in general, Matsuzaka represents the embodiment of an audacious dream. Of the five national dailies, three took up the topic of Matsuzaka’s transfer in their November 17 editorials, with all of them expressing delight that a Japanese was being treated as a superstar by the MLB.
The Mainichi editorial stated, “[The Red Sox] are a famous team founded in 1901, and they are great rivals of the New York Yankees, where Hideki Matsui plays, both belonging to the American League East. So in the traditional battles between these two teams, we are going to see duels between an ace pitcher and an ace batsman from Japan. What a luxurious dream! The surprising thing was the Red Sox offer of $51.11 million. That is nearly four times the transfer fee of $13.125 million that was paid six years ago when Ichiro moved from the Orix BlueWave to the Seattle Mariners. In Japanese currency, it is about \6 billion. That shows just how highly the Red Sox rated Matsuzaka.”
The Asahi editorial welcomed the fact that the improved level of Japanese baseball has been recognized in the United States, the home of baseball. It commented, “Just over a decade has passed since Japanese players began to excel in the big leagues. Hideo Nomo, the true pioneer behind this trend, and others after him have proudly put up solid statistics. At the inaugural World Baseball Classic held this spring in the United States, the Japanese national team outlasted the teams from the United States, Cuba and other countries to clinch the title. Matsuzaka was named Most Valuable Player of that tournament. The high-priced bidding war to obtain him shows that major league scouts have recognized his talents as well.”
Concern about the Posting System and the Outflow of Japan’s Star Players
However, it was not only with delight that the editorials of the national dailies commented on Matsuzaka’s transfer to the MLB. They also sounded a strong warning about the fact that, following the departure of such popular stars as Matsui and Ichiro, the transfer of Matsuzaka to the Red Sox means that the most talented pitcher in Japanese professional baseball will also be leaving Japan.
The Sankei Shimbun editorial drew attention to the pitfalls in the posting system, saying, “At first the Japanese side underestimated the system, claiming that it would not be used very much. However, the players started to argue that if they waited for free-agent eligibility, which could only be gained by taking part in all pennant race games for nine seasons, they would lose a golden opportunity at the height of their careers. And the clubs themselves also leant toward the money game in which, rather than letting leading players go without compensation as free agents, they could obtain hefty transfer fees through the posting system. If things continue in this way, the FA system will become a dead letter, and Japanese professional baseball could just turn into a subordinate division of the major leagues.”
The Asahi editorial urged Japanese professional baseball to carry out internal reform, commenting, “If the officials make it more difficult for Japanese players to make the jump to the major leagues for fear of losing big names, they will only make Japanese pro baseball more unpopular. A wiser choice would be to give players greater freedom in pursuing their dreams. For example, shorten the period needed for players to qualify for free agency to negotiate with teams of their choice. The cap on the number of foreigners allowed to play on Japanese professional teams should also be removed.” Incidentally, while no foreign player quota exists for MLB teams, the number of foreigners who can play on Japanese professional baseball teams is limited to up to four per first team. Also, the Japan Professional Baseball Players Association has been continuing its demand for a shortening of the nine-year period needed to acquire FA status.
(Copyright 2006 Foreign Press Center Japan)