THE LAND OF THE RISING TALENT LEVEL
[October 2nd] -- While living in Okinawa in the late 1970's, I was able to see first-hand the passion the Japanese hold for the game of baseball. Brought over to the island by Babe Ruth's barnstorming team's in the 1920's, Japan borrowed the game and made it her own [don't get mad at me feminists, the Japanese refer to their country as 'she']. The games, however, though exciting, were at best 'AAA' quality. I got the chance to see one MLB - Japan all-star game, and while the Japanese team was getting blown out, they were smiling and bowing to the American players.
Times have changed, however.
Today, the top three teams in Japan could easily play .500 or better against American major league competition. Most of the players now who make it to the Japan all-star game can have a successful career here in America. Japan is an ideal place for the Nationals to cull for talent.
The Nationals are learning first-hand the meaning of the phrase "Catch-22." Because the farm system is barren, the only way for the team to stock its big-league club is through free agency. But by doing this, the team would likely lose many of its high round draft picks, which would then make the farm system even more barren, forcing the team to sign more free agents, which causes the loss of draft picks, which .... well .... you get the idea. Jim Bowden has made the right choices this year, and has tried to begin the process of rebilding. He has traded high prices and/or over-valued veterans and received in return a half-dozen young pitchers who may, may, one day become a major league hurler. But there is another, easier way.
The signing of a Japanese free agent does not result in the loss of any draft picks. The Nationals could then plug holes at the major league level without harming the precarious status of it's farm system. Each year, two or three Japanese players sign with Major League teams. Since Ichiro, the vast majority have succeeded here in America. I'm not suggesting that these players would be instant "stars," but they could be credible replacements for the likes of Nook Logan or Ramon Ortiz or Pedro Astacio. The Seattle Mariners, having once before gone to the Japanese well, signed catcher Kenji Johjima last fall. He had a great first year, batting .291-18-76.
Why are Japanese players doing so well in America? I think it's the same reason that European basketball players are thriving in the NBA. American athletes spend less time on the basics of their sport and instead try to get themselves on ESPN's SportsCenter. Japanese players are more schooled in the basics of the game. Johjima, for example, struck out only 46 times in more than 500 at-bats.
I hope the Nationals look into not only Japan, but Korea and the other asian nations who play baseball. A team in the Nations Capital with a decidedly global flavor could enhance its popularity as well as its value, not to mention its win-loss record.
C'mon, Jim. Repeat after me: O-hio Guz-i-mas. Ko-nichi-wa. It really does get easy after a while.
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