Nomo, Irabu, and Soriano — who was a farmhand in the Japanese minors once upon a time — all tried to break free of the Japanese leagues and come to the majors. When they did so, it created the modern posting system as we know it.
Robert Whiting, the dean of Western writers on Japanese baseball, explains what happened:
Following is the short version of how Soriano made it from the Carp to the Yankees.
Soriano was getting a $45,000 minimum salary from the Carp on whose farm team he’d spent the 1997 season. With the help of his agent, Don Nomura, he filed for arbitration, asking for a salary of $165,000 — a figure Nomura arrived at by dividing the average salary of all foreigners in the Japanese minor leagues, which at the time came to $320,000. A hearing was held, adjudicated by the NPB commissioner and the two league presidents. Nomura was barred from attending. Soriano, who was willing to stay another year in Japan had the ruling come out in his favor, lost — not unpredictably. So he declared voluntary retirement, taking advantage of the so-called Nomo clause which Hideo Nomo used to gain his freedom from the NPB, and went to the States to take part in tryouts.
The Carp filed an injunction to block Soriano from playing anywhere else, sending out letters to MLB teams warning them to keep their hands off. The MLB executive council was convened to decide the matter.
Until that time, everyone in the U.S. had assumed the operative baseball agreement between the two countries was the one signed in 1967, which allowed voluntarily retired players to emigrate abroad, as Nomo had done. The Americans were unaware that the NPB in the post-Nomo era had unilaterally expanded the scope of their worldwide protections under the 1967 Working Agreement. The reason they were unaware was because the Japanese side had failed to notify them. There was nothing else in writing to cancel out the famous Kanai-Murray letters between the MLB and NPB commissioner’s offices which had allowed Nomo to voluntary retire and go to the U.S. in the first place.
After tense, acrimonious meetings in New York involving the MLB Executive Council, representatives from the NPB, Soriano’s people, and lawyers from the MLBPA, the MLB ruled that as far as they were concerned the Nomo clause was still in effect. A memo was dispatched to all MLB GM’s that contained the phrases: “After extensive communication with the Japanese Baseball Commissioner’s in New York, we have come to the conclusion that Mr. Soriano was or should have been placed on the Voluntarily Retired List… Japanese Voluntary Retired players may play for any team outside Japan… The current U.S.-Japan Player Agreement does not restrict Major League Clubs’ ability to sign a player on the Japanese Voluntarily Retired List….”
Soriano was thus allowed to voluntarily retire, just as Nomo had done, and sign with the Yankees.
In the wake of that meeting, the 1967 Working Agreement was scrapped and, in 1998, a new protocol, the Posting System was established.
Maybe. He’s going to end the year at around 2600 hits, given his current rate. If he can actually get back to last year’s rate — which may be possible now that he’s back to the lead-off spot — that’ll put him less than four years away from 3000. Who knows if that matters to him (assuming he can even reach it), or if it matters more that he return to Japan on his own terms. Given his unique relationship with Mr. Yamauchi, I could imagine the Mariners coming up with some kind of unusual contract with him, paying him less than his current deal with every year being a mutual option, or something. Heck, I could see him getting an ownership stake taken from Nintendo’s part of the pie. (I also could see him running for Prime Minister in 15 or 20 years, so maybe I just see a lot of things, or see things a lot.)
But if he does go back to Japan, he’ll be yet another ex-Mariner — like Willie Mo Pena and Wladimir Balentien — showing up at the top of the NPB leaderboards.
One my most treasured moments as a baseball fan was at Jingu Stadium (Home of the Yakult Swallows) sitting behind a guy wearing a Hensley Muelens Swallos jersey. I asked him if “Bam Bam” was popular when in Japan and he said “Oh yes! He helped us win the Japan Series and remains loved by Swallows Nation.”
(First off, I grew up in Japan as a child and breathed Japanese baseball. Just to let you know where I’m coming from. I feel like this is practically an article of my own :-P )
A couple of things:
Minor detail: the Tokyo Dome’s “capacity” of 55,000 is a number who knows who came up with it, but when all the seats are filled, the number of people counted is actually 47,000. (That’s an entirely different story)
Most of the best Japanese power hitters never make it to the majors (Hideki Matsui is the pretty much the only exception) for several reasons. MLB generally has plenty of power people, so there’s no demand. Also, by the time the power hitters are eligible for free agency, they’re 28-31 and past their prime. They can’t make up for the adjustments (which seem to take a bit longer with power hitters) with any speed or fielding that they may have once had. And the general adjustment is that Japanese hitters tend to bail out and have excellent plate coverage on the inside half, while in MLB, it’s the opposite (“get arms extended,” “out over the plate,” etc.)
Remember Norihiro Nakamura? He was essentially a power-hitting moster in Japan, in a big home stadium, but because of his unorthodox swing (they dubbed it “the windmill” in Japan), he had a super short leash with the Dodgers. Had given a chance, he could have probably adjusted and been a good 20+ homer guy in the majors, but his fielding had slipped a little since he was past his prime.
Or, they’re people like Iwamura, who is more of a “pure hitter,” but had a Brady Anderson-like fluke 44 home run season in a small ballpark. They’ve adjusted/built most of the ballparks to around 330-380-400 now, but park effects were a huge difference in the 1990s-2000s.
Probably because of the parks being expanded, these last two years have EASILY been “Years of the pitcher” in Japan, with something like 10+ starters with under 2.00 E.R.A. There are 12 teams. I was kind of skeptical of Darvish because he’s post a 1.71 E.R.A in a stadium that’s essentially Turner Field with a 20 foot fence, and finish second in the league.
There are a few people who “found it” in Japan then came to the U.S. with more success. Cecil Fielder is probably the most famous example in 1989, where I can guess he learned how to hit breaking balls. And Colby Lewis who pitched in the über band box of Hiroshima Stadium in 2008 (300 poles, 360 alleys, 380 center, 6ft fence), before the moved into their more normal-sized stadium in ’09 (but put up similar numbers there, too, huh).
Also, NPB has a rule now that if you as a player become eligible for free agency (9 years), your “foreign” status is removed and doesn’t count towards the team’s “suketto” total. Orix took advantage of this once, having three: Tuffy Rhodes, Alex Cabrera, and Greg LaRocca.
A lot of these players are there for financial reasons, too. Tuffy Rhodes once he succeeded, adapted, and was “naturalized,” he could make FAR more money in Japan than in MLB. Salaries aren’t as high as MLB, but they’re WAY better than AAA for the top level players. Hideki Matsui was offered $10 million/year to stay in Japan, but he opted to play in the U.S.
“Mr. Baseball” is a movie made in 1992 about Japanese baseball in 1981 (when the Lee brothers played). It’s the Japanese baseball equivalent of “You’ve Got Mail” being released 2 years ago.
Probably because of the parks being expanded, these last two years have EASILY been “Years of the pitcher” in Japan, with something like 10+ starters with under 2.00 E.R.A.
They also changed the ball, apparently. I don’t have a link handy but it was a point of discussion when the Mariners and A’s opened the season there. (You’re probably better able to find links than I am anyway.)
And a Korean who signed a big money contract is second in HRs and third in OPS. Lee chalks his success in Japan up to the diet that his Japanese team has enforced along with his contract. It would be interesting to see if it is a matter of the Japanese league being “easier” or the training being better and the players showing actual improvement. After all, when was the last time a western nation won a major baseball tournament?
I’ve wondered something before. Say Byron Buxton didn’t like what the Twins were offering him, while at the same time he didn’t want to go to a university and make nothing. Could he sign, say a 6 year for 1 million a year contract with a Japanese team as an international free agent? That way when he hits age 24, he can hit the open market in the MLB? Hell, if thats possible I would consider it if I was a top highschool talent. And I would try to do it as much as possible if I was a NPB team.
Comment by Jeff Mathis does Steroids — June 15, 2012 @ 12:48 pm
Pretty soon we’re going to be seeing more movies set in the ’90s, like there have been a lot of movies set in the ’80s. “The Wackness” was just the first trickle of what is going to become a rainstorm.
Thank you very much for your perspective. You may be quite right that, among position players, players with speed and defense will be comparatively preferred by MLB teams to players with power, just because it may be believed that speed and defense will transfer better to MLB parks. It’s hard to forget that Kaz Matsui, who hit 30 homers in Japan, had almost no power on any day that wasn’t Opening Day.
On the other hand, Hideki Matsui proved that it’s possible for a Japanese power hitter to muscle up in America. So I don’t think that the dichotomy will remain as stark as it has for the past decade plus of the modern posting system. If I were a 22-year old Japanese star, no matter what my skillset, I’d want to test my abilities in America. And I doubt that will change.
Comment by chuckleberry1974 — June 15, 2012 @ 3:29 pm
While not quite the same, Shuuhei Fujiya, born in the US, played for USC and was drafted in the 6th round by the Chiba Lotte Marines. Now, he’s no Byron Buxton, but I would suppose it could be possible. Also, since the NPB regularly drafts HS players and throws them onto their ichi-gun team (majors), it’s quite possible they wouldn’t be toiling on the farm either, though that’s no guarantee depending on how long the player wants to stay.
“The Giants are tied for first, of course — they’re pretty much always in first place. But they are doing it without much help from their foreigners. ”
This is now little more than a myth, leftover from “You Gotta Have Wa!” Over the last 10-15 years, the Giants have used just as many foreign players as any other team, in just as prominent roles. For the last 15 years they’ve relied on the power of the likes of Tuffy Rhodes, Alex Ramirez and Seung-Yeop Lee, and pitching support from Seth Greisinger, Dicky Gonzalez, Marc Kroon and Wirfin Obispo. They are far from the “pure” team they liked to project themselves as being in the 1970s & 1980s.
You misunderstand me. Of course the Giants have foreign players. I’m saying that those foreign players haven’t contributed much this year. I’m not making any commentary on their “purity”; just noting that the first-place Giants haven’t gotten much out of their major league-experienced players thus far in 2012, with the exception of Houlton.
Being a late-to-the-party fan of Tuffy Rhodes, I was excited when Orix landed both LaRocca and Cabrera. It was absolutely maddening to see all three go down with injuries to the point that we almost never got to see them in the lineup at the same time (and Tuffy was having an awesome year before getting drilled in the hand). For Japanese baseball that would have been like having a 3-4-5 punch of Albert Pujols, Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder in the middle of your lineup.
From what I’ve read in the past couple of years, KBO is actually a much tough proposition for foreign players in that there is less money and “catering” to foreigners, and if they don’t produce fairly quickly, they often find themselves on the way back home in short order. While the quality of play may not be as high as in NPB, the stress level for foreigners can be higher.
Someone really needs to corner Julio Franco and get started on his 5 volume biography. As easily the most accomplished MLB player to succeed at every stop in his career, it would be wonderful to get his in-depth thoughts on the different leagues.
I would be mildly worried as an MLB fan if it IS possible. I know that the new CBA caps what teams can spend on amatuer talent in both the draft and internationaly, which I guess in theory could open the door for some opprotunistic Japanese franchises.
Again, in THEORY the Pirates could only be able to offer Appel a 3 million dollar bonus, or the next Yeonis Cespedes or Soler could only be offered 6 million dollars by any MLB team, and the NPB could just throw money at these guys and the MLB teams could not compete. I don’t know if the NPB has a salary cap or anything like that, or if the MLB has any safeguards against this, but it would be pretty interesting (if not a little scary) if this senario came true.
Comment by Jeff Mathis does Steroids — June 15, 2012 @ 7:20 pm
That would be a bit like Brandon Jennings going to Europe rather than come immediately to the NBA. It would be an interesting strategy, but I wonder whether Japanese teams would be interested in allowing themselves to be used as pawns in contract disputes. It’s one thing for John Calipari’s Kentucky to knowingly go after 1-year players. It’s another thing for a professional team in a professional league to do so.