Will Yu Darvish cross the Pacific to pitch?
Yu Darvish, in the words of a confidant, “wants to change baseball in Japan.” In some senses, he already has. The 6-foot-5 right-hander doesn’t look like a normal player, with his rock-star haircut and emotional mound presence. He doesn’t throw like one, either, with an array of power pitches that contrast with the slop that passes for stuff in Nippon Professional Baseball.
Real change, of course, the sort that Darvish supposedly craves, necessitates more than a talented stylist or a blessed arm can affect. It is the sort of thing achieved through years of advocacy and fighting, through the sort of single-minded fortitude a generation of ballplayers before him forged.
In the sometimes-contentious, often-litigious relationship between Major League Baseball and NPB, professional cordiality remains a staple. Fifteen years ago, however, when attorney Jean Afterman was fighting for Hideki Irabu’s professional freedom, she sent a correspondence to the San Diego Padres and Chiba Lotte Marines, the teams conspiring to control the pitcher’s career, and the last line of the letter skipped the usual pleasantries.
“You will have nothing,” she wrote.
Afterman was certain that she and agent Don Nomura, her partner in liberating Japanese players from the usurious contracts that tether them to their teams, would prevail in preventing Irabu’s team in Japan, Chiba Lotte, from sending him to its trading partner of choice, San Diego. And if that meant him sitting out until he reached free agency, Afterman promised that both teams would end up empty-handed.
Intimidation worked. Irabu went to the team he preferred, the New York Yankees. And the episode so peeved the Japanese baseball establishment that it insisted on a measure to ensure proper compensation were future stars to ply their trade in MLB.
So began the posting system, a solution that in its 13 years has grown evermore despised by major league teams and Japanese players. The only winners are NPB teams, who reap every dollar from the blind auction that entails the first part of the system. The team from MLB that bids the most has 30 days to negotiate with the player from Japan on a contract certain to undervalue what the market would bear because so much money already has gone to the Japanese team via posting. Until last year, every player who had posted and been bid on came to MLB. Oakland’s offer came in too low for pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma, and rather than accept it, he blamed the $19.1 million posting fee the Athletics paid and hightailed back to Japan. The Rakuten Eagles returned the money to Oakland.
Iwakuma’s agent? Don Nomura, of course.
After unleashing Hideo Nomo, Alfonso Soriano(notes) and Irabu from Japan’s system that calls for an absurd nine full seasons before free agency, and following the Iwakuma situation last year, Nomura is back with perhaps his best client yet – and the one who could change the posting debate forever. Nomura represents Darvish, who is the best player in Japan, certainly, and one of the most accomplished in the world. And according to high-ranking MLB sources and ones in Japan familiar with Darvish’s thinking, the posting system concerns him as much as it would any superstar-in-waiting who wants to thrive on the game’s biggest stage. Nomura declined comment.
The sources, granted anonymity because they didn’t want to give away their teams’ intentions with Darvish or weren’t authorized by the 25-year-old to speak on his behalf, said that within the next week or two, after the Japan Series crowns a champion, Darvish expects to meet with his team, the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, and determine whether he will post. His intentions remain unclear.
Abundantly clear is what’s at stake. If he does post, he will be just like those before him: Ichiro Suzuki(notes) and Daisuke Matsuzaka(notes), big-name, big-talent players who signed undermarket contracts after watching teams pay millions of dollars simply for the right to bid on them. Should he decline to, it will be a sign to the Fighters that Darvish may be speaking out against the system tacitly, as doing so publicly would bring him immense scrutiny like it did Irabu.
This time, the “you will have nothing” warning by Afterman, now a New York Yankees assistant general manager, could apply to far more people than in Irabu’s case.
The Fighters won’t have a posting fee that likely would fall short of Matsuzaka’s $51.1 million but certainly would exceed $30 million.
Darvish won’t have the major league career he craves after putting up his fifth consecutive sub-2.00 ERA season, this year perhaps his best with a 1.44 ERA.
And MLB won’t have one of the most intriguing players alive, a hard-throwing, good-looking, multi-ethnic slice of pitchability and marketability ready to take over the baseball world.
Until recently, the question of whether Darvish is going to post always has been more of a when than an if. Players of his caliber no longer spend their entire careers in Japan, and that rationale remains true for those who believe the questions about Darvish’s arrival are nothing more than a smokescreen to gin up leverage after bidding.
“He’s coming,” said one general manager whose team has scouted Darvish for years and plans to place a bid if he posts. “The money is too good. He makes [$7 million] there. He’ll be guaranteed $50 or $60 million here.”
Others are no longer certain.
“I’m concerned we’re not going to see him for a few more years,” said another GM in a similar position. “He’s not your average Japanese player. I get the impression he wants to stand for something.”
Whether that means taking on the posting system or working for other changes in a labor structure that calls for long hours of training, subservience to the team and ownership controlling players for nearly a decade, it’s a difficult position to take publicly in a country that has labeled such ballplayers as wagamama – selfish.
Still, if anyone is in a proper position to do so, it may be Darvish. Because he is half-Iranian and half-Japanese – his parents met while his father was playing college soccer in Florida – Darvish always has been something of an outcast in a society that relishes homogeneity. Soon after he was drafted, Darvish was caught smoking a cigarette in a pachinko parlor, little more than a youthful indiscretion. It created a national furor.
So whether it is speaking out about the posting system or coming out in such favor of staying that it would embarrass the financially troubled Fighters if they posted him anyway for the millions in revenue it would bring, Darvish does command a position of strength, publicly if not legally. That is Nomura’s area of expertise.
Born in Japan to an American father and Japanese mother, Nomura, like Darvish, was looked upon as different growing up. He played minor league baseball before starting an agent business that flourished on players who wanted to leave Japan. He wasn’t a lawyer. Nomura didn’t even have a college degree. With Afterman, he sussed out a loophole in MLB and NPB’s player agreements that concluded if a player voluntarily retired from NPB, he immediately could sign with MLB. Soon thereafter, Nomo was a Los Angeles Dodger.
After bringing over Irabu – who committed suicide in July after a disappointing MLB career – and fighting for Soriano’s free agency, Nomura earned a nickname in Japan: The Black Ship, a derisive reference to boats that brought bad things from the West. NPB passed new rules that stated an agent needed to be an attorney licensed in Japan, which shut out both Nomura and Afterman.
The racket didn’t change. While the MLB Players Association has bargained balance into the reserve system – for the pre-arbitration years, the club gets a significantly good deal, through arbitration the pendulum tilts and by free agency teams are overspending – Japan continues to stifle its players. Even Darvish, who started pitching for the Fighters as an 18-year-old out of high school, wouldn’t reach free agency until the end of the 2014 season, a few months after his 28th birthday.
“I think that begins with the Japanese player himself,” said agent Scott Boras, who negotiated Matsuzaka’s six-year, $52 million contract with Boston. “He has to understand that advocacy on his behalf must be recognized to create a viable market for the player here. What has happened is that if a player is of value, his rights here in the states are grandly minimized.”
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The lesson for now: Japanese clubs own their players in the same feudal manner they have forever. The imbalance in the blind bidding system that had the Red Sox offer in excess of $11 million more than the next team for Matsuzaka is troublesome to players and MLB teams. And, accordingly, the freest thinkers want something different, whether it’s a posting system that suits them or a more equitable deal for NPB.
Just how important such change is depends on the player. And whether Yu Darvish is that player to whom it’s important may reveal itself soon enough.
The posting system will die once the only beneficiary of it stops reaping its rewards. And while Rakuten last season lodged a complaint about the system following its return of Iwakuma’s $19.1 million fee to Oakland, there is little movement today in Japan to overhaul it.
There is too much potential money the way it is, the thinking goes. NPB already struggles to keep franchises afloat financially because they don’t share media markets, business rights, anything, really. Funny enough, they could benefit more from an overhauled system than any of the other parties.
Whether it’s coming up with a sliding fee scale – teams are entitled to 50 percent if a player posts following his first season all the way down to 10 percent after his eighth – or engaging multiple bidders, there are ways to encourage player transfer in a way equitable to the team and player. Of course, Japan’s desire to keep its baseball at a high level could hinder the transfer of more Japanese talent to MLB.
Posting isn’t a top priority on MLB’s schedule today. “We will revisit the protocols after the CBA,” said Rob Manfred, the league’s labor chief currently hammering out a collective-bargaining agreement with the players. It is an issue, however, as the posting fee does not go toward the luxury tax and thus keeps millions of dollars from coming into MLB’s coffers as well.
The arrival of Japanese players should make everyone rich, at least in a fair system, and it’s why shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima and outfielder Norichika Aoki plan to post this offseason. Nakajima has hit .300 in six consecutive seasons. Aoki has won three batting titles. Adding Darvish would make this the best class in posting history.
Certainly nobody could blame Darvish for posting and bowing to life-altering money, the sort that lasts for generations. At the same time, if he really did take the changing-baseball-in-Japan idea seriously, one executive suggested that the MLB-NPB contract is in violation of antitrust law. Now, antitrust litigation is enormously expensive. If ever a player were to file suit, he would have the power of two huge leagues weighing on him. And yet the allure of it – of being the one to challenge and perhaps overturn a rule that limits a country full of players from pursuing what’s right for them – is the sort of thing any iconoclast could appreciate.
Darvish playing that role feels unlikely for now. Someone will come along, though, someone who saw what Darvish experienced and realized the unfairness that is the posting system and did something about it. And before that happens, NPB’s decision-makers would be best served to act and implement a system that benefits all the parties, not just one of three.
The last thing they want – the last thing anyone wants – is to have nothing.
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