Changing the Game

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Ichiro Suzuki bows to no one. While most Japanese baseball superstars tend to be robotic pitchers, he has earned his reputation swinging a bat. His $4.2 million contract shattered previous salary records. He has his own clothing line, and his genial face beams from countless Tokyo billboards. Defying convention, the 25-year-old's Orix BlueWave jersey is emblazoned with his first name, Ichiro, instead of his last. With his easygoing style and on-the-field bravado, Ichiro represents the brash new face of one of Japan's most conservative pastimes. Yes, he works hard, and he has led his team to two pennants and a Japan Series title. But he plays hard, too. During a spring training exchange program with America's Seattle Mariners this year, the five-time batting champion picked up not just tips on improving his swing but some colorful English profanity as well. The two-week U.S. stint is a likely prelude to Ichiro's move westward. With pitchers like Hideo Nomo and Hideki Irabu in the U.S., Japanese players are realizing they can play in America, too, says Hitoshi Yasuno of sports-marketing firm IMG Tokyo. Many young players admire the easier style of American play. Certainly, Ichiro makes no secret of his wish to blaze a path as the first Japanese non-pitcher in the U.S. big leagues. He told me the major leagues is his type of baseball, says Orix teammate Willie Banks, formerly of the Arizona Diamondbacks. He said everybody in the States is so relaxed and everybody in Japan is so uptight. Ichiro isn't the only one fed up with Japanese baseball's corporate rigidity, a consequence of the conservative thinking of the elderly cadres who run the sport. For 34 years, Japan's national pastime has been played by the owners' rules, which restrict players' freedom to choose their teams and showcase their talents. Japanese baseball is an obligation to the company, says Tokyo-based sportswriter Jim Allen. You have to sacrifice for the good of your team. There is little reason to believe the system will change from within. When Ichiro Yoshikuni retired as commissioner of the sport last year at age 81, he was replaced by 76-year-old Hiromori Kawashima, hardly a harbinger of revolutionary change. Disheartened by such creakiness, many younger players are breaking with tradition and piping up for themselves. Some are simply more outspoken about their prowess, like 18-year-old pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka, who has spurned conventional modesty by predicting he will be 1999's rookie of the year. Others are rocking the boat in more fundamental ways. Despite a lingering recession and the sport's unspoken rule not to haggle over money, Kazuhiro Sasaki, Japan's top relief pitcher, milked a one-year, $4 million contract out of the Yokohama BayStars. Last year's rookie of the year Kenshin Kawakami turned heads by snagging a raise of $250,000 from the Chunichi Dragons--the largest pay hike ever given to a player with one year's experience. And of course, there's Ichiro's dazzling paycheck. The younger generation has also succeeded in pushing for lighter onfield regimens--with the help of some progressive coaches and managers. Rigorous workouts were once the norm. Coaches pelted infielders with painful line drives until they were bruised and shaking. Pitchers had to throw as many as 300 pitches a day, risking damage to their arms and their careers. But the unconventional approach of BayStars manager Hiroshi Gondo has proven that less can be more. In his debut season last year, the skipper shortened practices and did away with the obsequious honorifics that players use when addressing their manager. Most importantly, Gondo allowed his younger players to strut their stuff, encouraging hitters to eschew the selfless sacrifice bunt for a big swing at the ball. Gondo's unorthodox style might well have been dismissed by the sport's management if he hadn't taken his long-beleaguered team to a Japan Series title last season. But from the start, he had the support of his younger players, who grew up with increased media coverage of less strenuous American baseball techniques. Practice times were shorter in the U.S., says Ichiro of his stay with the Mariners. I was happy because I had free time after the regular practices to use for whatever I wanted. Acknowledges Atsushi Tamaru, spokesman for the Chiba Lotte Marines: I think we're beginning to realize that quality is more important than quantity. The new breed is also trying to kickstart Japan's emasculated players' union. While the American Major League Baseball players union wielded so much influence that it strangled the 1994 season to a premature end, the Japanese have never successfully organized a strike. But under the leadership of Yakult Swallows catcher Atsuya Furuta, the union is sharpening its teeth, calling for, among other things, bigger pension payments and permission to bring agents into salary negotiations with the owners. Furuta also hopes to resolve disputes over the draft and free agency, both perennial sore spots between players and management. Introduced in 1965, the nation's antiquated draft is played out each year with the melodramatic ritual of a kabuki play. There's a tragic air to the draft, says George Field, a veteran observer of Japanese baseball. Each year it seems another person is sacrificed for the system. Although American baseball also has a draft, Japanese players have a longer time commitment with their initial team than their American counterparts, and the Japan Inc. mentality pressures players to stay with one ballclub for life. Such constraints moved highly touted high-school pitcher Nagisa Arakaki to pick university over the pros last November after an unlucky draft pick quashed his hopes of joining the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks. When Arakaki refused to sign with the Orix BlueWave, team scout Katsutoshi Miwata fatally hurled himself off a building in despair. Reform is also needed, say players, in the free-agency system, which dampens young players' chances to play overseas while still in their prime. While U.S. players are free to switch teams after six years, Japanese baseballers have to wait nine years before they are eligible for free agency. There is one way out: under the posting system, a ball club can place a player on the international market and sell him to the highest bidder. But posting doesn't take into account the player's desired destination. Unless Furuta and others succeed in changing the regulations, Ichiro is in a bind. He can wait until after the 2001 season, when he will qualify for free agency, but he may no longer be at the peak of his game. Alternatively, he can allow the BlueWave to post him, but he would likely lose his dream of playing for the Mariners, who probably don't have the cash to emerge as top bidder. There is also the possibility that Ichiro could just tell Japanese baseball to stuff it and head to the States--as he reportedly threatened to do in order to score his fat salary. Doing so would mean that team owners wouldn't allow him to play in Japan ever again. To jump ship, Ichiro would need the support of a powerful American owner like the New York Yankees' George Steinbrenner, who has expressed interest in the hitter and is hardly averse to stirring up controversy. And a slick agent like Don Nomura, who wangled a sweetheart deal for Yankees pitcher Irabu, would help, too. How Ichiro finesses his quandary could well affect the futures of other players who wish to show off their skills in the U.S., like relief ace Sasaki and shortstop Kazuo Matsui, a base-stealer known for his pink batting gloves. The spotlight is on Ichiro, and the question is whether he can remain defiant against Japanese baseball's hidebound leadership. With reporting by John De Bellis/Osaka