Sun, Jul 25, 2004 - Page 23 News List

Japan's baseball leagues discuss merge

AP , TOKYO

A public spat widened between Japan's baseball officials over the future of the professional leagues Friday, as teams lined up on both sides of the debate over whether the two leagues should be combined for the first time in a half century.

In the past two months, four of the Pacific League's six teams have proposed mergers, forcing club owners to mull the prospect of having a lopsided scenario: four teams in the Pacific League, six in the Central League. One idea being considered is having one league with just 10 teams, which the players union and fans will likely oppose.

Hanshin Tigers president, Katsuyoshi Nozaki, has campaigned for Central League teams to oppose a single-league format. On Friday, he said there just hadn't been enough time to consider the alternatives.

"We want to do what we can to go with two leagues next season," Nozaki told reporters, after meeting with officials from the Yakult Swallows and Yokohama BayStars, who echoed his view. "We want to take time to figure out whether it's better to go with one or two leagues."

With the Chunichi Dragons and Hiroshima Carp also aligning themselves with the Hanshin Tigers in recent weeks, Nozaki turned to the lone holdout in among the Central League's six teams -- the Yomiuri Giants.

But Giants' president, Makoto Doi, refused to comply.

"My basic stance is that I'm broadly opposed" to preserving the two-league system, Doi said, after talks with Nozaki Friday. "The Pacific League can't exist with just four teams."

Though a vote is still two months away -- owners meet next in September -- the growing rancor among ball clubs could make it difficult for officials to strike a deal by the end of this season.

Consolidation would upset a system that has been since 1950. More than 100 players could lose their jobs, along with front office staff and other personnel, and the game could lose countless disillusioned fans.

Friday's exchange had all the hallmarks of a power struggle between Japan's fiercest rivals.

Games between the two sides are among Japanese baseball's most bitter -- and often draw comparisons with another historical struggle of the titans: the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox in the major leagues.

The dispute over the fate of Japan's national pastime dates back to mid-June, when officials of the Orix BlueWave and the Kintetsu Buffaloes announced a proposed merger.

Hit by rising player salaries and dwindling attendance, those teams have said they must tie-up to survive.

Japan's longrunning economic slowdown and the exodus of marquee players like Hideki Matsui and Ichiro Suzuki to the major leagues as well as the surging popularity of other sports such as soccer also have contributed to Japanese baseball's financial woes.

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