MLB: Opening Day or 開幕日

Glenn DarbySenior Analyst IMarch 25, 2008

I never thought Kanji would be part of my baseball posts.

But alas, as I drove into work this morning, XM178 was broadcasting the Boston Red Sox game against the Oakland Athletics live from the Tokyo Dome in Japanese.

I do not know too many words in Japanese. I know a few when I hear them.

I gained most of my knowledge during the World Baseball Classic a few years back. Sitting in the stands at PetCo Park in San Diego and rooting for the Japanese to triumph over Korea and Cuba was possibly the most exciting thing I have ever experienced in my baseball life.

Then, Japanese baseball was limited to Ichiro and Hideo Nomo for me. Beyond that, I considered the Japanese second class baseball citizens. I was wrong.

I was in Peoria the first spring that Ichiro came to the United States. I sat up in the club seats and watched throngs of reporters capture every step he made.

I lived in Seattle for Ichiro's first few seasons with the Mariners, and I was definitely swept up in the Japanese baseball craze.

When the winds were cold at SafeCo, I would sport my Kazuhiro Sasaki beanie and chant "Sanshin" as he mowed down the final three. Ichiro destroyed American records, and Kaz destroyed American hitters.

Kaz would leave baseball to be close to his family (and in the process destroy the Mariners bullpen for the next four years). And Ichiro would show that he was not Teddy Ballgame-incarnate.

The Yanks got a Matsui. The Mets got a Matsui. Neither was that good. Guys named Igawa, Iguchi, Ishii, Irabu, Johjima, Komiyama, and Matsuzaka all came and went with about as much success as any other foreign-born players.

But Matsuzaka leads us to where we are today.

It was five years ago that we invaded Iraq. (Has this war really been going on for five years?) And the Japan series that the Mariners were about to play, that would have been chance for Ichiro to show his countrymen what a star he had become, was canceled.

Now the next Japanese phenom has arrived, taken the world (and the Rockies) by storm, and is throwing gyro balls to another (non-Japanese) Suzuki in the Tokyo Dome.

Matsuzaka did not perform all that well. It was Okajima, another Japanese player, who got the win for the Red Sox by getting Kurt Suzuki to ground out.

The fans went crazy. The place was rocking. I wish I'd been there... 

All of this leads to a fundamental question: Should Japanese baseball go farther to protect their own investment?

Do the Nippon Ham Fighters lose fans because there is a Red Sox game on?  Do the children of Tokyo buy throwback Yankees hats instead of throwback Tokyo Giants hats?  Does MLB's expansion into the Japanese world hurt Nippon Professional Baseball? 

NPB already has rules in place to prevent American players from the overtaking the league.  No team is allowed to have more than four foreign-born players on its roster.

NPB could easily bar MLB from playing in Japan, but instead the league brings out its best and brightest to play exhibitions against American teams. Subsequently, it loses its best players to America via free agency or the posting system.  

Within our (or Bud Selig's) lifetime, it is possible that we will see the creation of two more divisions of MLB.

You will have the National League, the American League, the Pacific League, and the Central League. In theory, what you would see is a throwback to pre-Selig days of non- inter-league games.

National League and American League teams might play each other exactly the same way they do now, all the way up to a World Series.

At the same time, Pacific League and Central League teams would be battling it out in Japan.

Then the true "World Series" would face the winner of the U.S. bracket against the winner of the Japanese bracket.

Of course, this idea has problems. Right now there are troubles with inter-league play (a whole mess of them), but inter-league play continues.

This idea could eventually lead to more leagues being incorporated. Why shouldn't the Lacey Tigers get to play against the Detroit Tigers if they are the two best teams?

No professional sport has ever undertaken such an expansion. There are hurdles miles high.  Taxes, visas, foreign relations, and currency exchange are all issues that need to be considered.

Baseball in Canada suffered for years, and one of the reasons was because the Canadian dollar was so weak compared to the American dollar. (But oh how I wish I would have saved all of that colorful money now.)

There are other problems as well. How can the less than one million people who live in Chiba and work at the shipping docks fund a team that has to compete with the 10 million Yankees fans around the world?

How do you convince the Alex Rodriguezes of the world that Nagoya is a good place to raise a family and a good team to play for when his whole family lives in the Caribbean?

The downside, of course, would be if all of the Japanese-born players come to America, leaving the Japanese fans with few identifiable players on the field.

Japan would become the Tampa Bay of the East, the Hanshin Tigers and Yamiyuri Giants would have to change their names, and the game would be changed forever in Japan.

But I think this sort of expansion is inevitable.

Just imagine a Serenity-esque world where everyone speaks Japanese and English when referring to baseball.

"A long hikyu to sayoku! Ramirez looks up...Honruida!  The Dragons win, the Dragons win...the-uh-uh-uh-Dragons win!"