Why Are Star Players Defecting?

When I was looking for a good book to read around this time last year, I happened to also hear about (and soon thereafter, befriend) former Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles GM Marty Kuehnert. I checked his site, saw that he had written a bunch of books, and found a couple of titles that caught my eye. This was not one of them, but when I asked him which of his books he was proudest of, this one got mentioned. I figured, why not buy the one the author himself recommends? If you want to read my reviews of the other two Kuehnert selections I own, click here and here.

The premise behind this book is that Japanese baseball has a number of major problems that need fixing. It is not so much an explanation of why Nomo and other pitchers left (prior to it being written in 1997) or why future stars like Ichiro would likely follow the same path. (He does, though, mention Ichiro in the book’s opening and closing chapters.)

The crux of the tale takes us through some of the huge issues that the author has noticed about Japanese baseball. They are:

  1. The umpire selection/hiring process is terrible, and there are few places for them to hone their craft before they get a chance at the bigs.
  2. The sports medicine/training fields lag far behind the American counterparts. There are no university courses/programs to create a batch of qualified, capable athletic trainers.
  3. Teams seem to make the assumption that their brightest star players will also be outstanding managers. They do not scrutinize that player (turned manager) or the decisions he makes. The truth is, the greatest managers in MLB were mediocre players, if they made it pro at all!
  4. Team representatives are designated by the parent company, which does not always have a strong interest in putting a competitive product on the field. Hence, the team lacks strong direction.
  5. The league commissioner is 81 years old and has so many other jobs and titles outside of baseball, he is unable to fulfill his role as commissioner well.
  6. The teams themselves are nothing more than advertising tools for the owners’ parent company. Therefore, little effort or quality goes into things like advertising, promoting, mascots, and so on.
  7. TV broadcasting is low quality. Teams do not have their own play-by-play people who follow the team all season and know the organization intimately. Instead, it is done on a shift basis, and often guest commentators are ignorant celebrities who add little-to-nothing to the TV viewers’ enjoyment. (In passing, he also mentions the insanity of starting the broadcast an hour after the game has started, and ending it at the same time every night – regardless of whether or not the game is over, and regardless of the drama that has been built up! To me, this is the most annoying part of the entire NPB beast!)

First of all, the book was written in 1997. Surely many of Kuehnert’s complaints are things that have changed over the course of the last 2 decades? An e-mail to Mr. Kuehnert and his reply revealed to me that in fact, not much has changed. He did not go into detail, but I am hoping to talk with him at length about this during the offseason.

For the first several chapters of this one, I kind of felt like Mr. Kuehnert was being a bit too harsh on Japanese baseball. After all, it was unfair to compare it to the American sports world, which is rich and highly developed. However, the deeper I got into the book, the more I realized that his points are extremely accurate and reveal a system that is much more flawed than it appears to be on the surface, to the casual fan. And I think this was written out of a love for the country and the sport. Though at times it sounded like it was bashing Japan, I think the true message behind this work is, “You can do SO much more to increase the quality of the game, Japan! Don’t get stuck in tradition, don’t settle for mediocrity!” And for his brutal honesty, I applaud Mr. Kuehnert.

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T-Ray is the founder, chief writer and Junior Executive Vice President of Hanshin Tigers English News (H-TEN). Find him on Twitter @thehanshintiger.