It's a certain kind of baseball fan who comes to a meaningless exhibition game on a frigid Thursday afternoon in March, and Akira Koike, 33, is that kind of fan.
The salaryman has followed the Seibu Lions since he was 8, back when his family lived near the team's stadium in Tokorozawa, a sleepy suburb 40 minutes west of Tokyo by train. Clad in a powder blue Lions jacket, with a Lions towel wrapped around his neck, Koike spends the entire game bobbing like a prizefighter in Seibu's official cheering section, where well-drilled fans in blue and white drum and sing personalized anthems every time a Lion comes to bat. One player is missing though--superstar pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka, who left for the Boston Red Sox this off-season after eight years with Seibu.
American fans would be burning up the talk-show phone lines if their team effectively sold the game's best player, but Koike is philosophical. "I'll watch him on TV," he says, "and I'm really looking forward to catching him in Boston."
Koike's travel plans should worry the corporate overlords who run Japanese baseball. Matsuzaka is just the latest in a series of Japanese players who have left their home league at the peak of their career. The emigration has done wonders for the worldwide reputation of Japanese baseball players but not for baseball in Japan. While Dice-K (a fratty phonetic rendering of Daisuke that has become his new American nickname) can't blow a bubble without the media watching, attendance at Japanese professional games has sagged. TV ratings for the Yomiuri Giants, by far the country's most popular team, are so low that the games are shown on delay, late at night. Younger Japanese are flocking to soccer, which has a hip local league spread out across the country. Pro baseball is seen as stagnant and uncompetitive, clinging blindly to bygone success, which makes it a fittingly miserable metaphor for much of Japanese society--enslaved to tradition as it struggles to break out of years of economic gloom.
Auctioning off Dice-K for $51 million should have shored up the Lions' shaky finances. Instead, the Lions are in serious trouble. Earlier this month, the club admitted that its scouts had paid a pair of amateur players under the table, a clear violation of the rules. (Seibu turned down TIME's requests for interviews.) The Lions could be facing harsh penalties, like losing their spot in the draft for a year or more, but the greater damage is to the club's reputation and that of Japanese baseball. Former major league manager Bobby Valentine, who now helms the Chiba Lotte Marines in Tokyo, called the Lions' payoffs "the tip of the iceberg." Japanese have tired of the clubby, borderline-corrupt business practices of old-school corporations like the ones behind baseball. That disgust may be bleeding over to the teams themselves.
The good news is that baseball as a game hasn't lost its grip on the Japanese soul. Every summer Japan is transfixed by the national high school baseball championship tournament, so passionate that it makes March Madness look like a pickup game at the YMCA. Ratings for local pro games may be low, but millions of Japanese will tune in to Matsuzaka's Red Sox games. If Japanese pro ball can liberalize--perhaps by sharing revenue to add competitive balance--there's no reason it can't recapture Japan. After all, there are some aspects of the Japanese game that the U.S. will never be able to beat. "Seibu Lions fans are known for being very well-mannered," says Mitsuko Nakanomi, 67, a Lions supporter for more than five decades. "And we have a very clean stadium." Good luck finding that in Boston, Dice-K.