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It is late June. Like most of his generation, the 27-year-old Matsui has spent the last month obsessing about the World Cup and looking to soccer, not baseball, players for style tips. He wears a soccer bracelet and spends several minutes fluffing his thick mop of tinted hair skyward so he can look more like English star David Beckham. "I've always liked Beckham," he says. "He's why I dyed my hair."
The difference between Matsui and his peers, though, is that an hour after adjusting his coiffure at the Seibu Dome the day before, the durable, switch-hitting shortstop for the Seibu Lions cracked the second pitch he saw for a leadoff home run, played flawlessly in the field and again showed why he may be the best all-around ballplayer in Japan. Los Angeles Dodgers pitching coach Jim Colborn, a former Mariners director of Pacific Rim scouting who coached in Japan, says some three dozen Japanese players could play in the majors. But it's the imminent exodus of top players like Matsui, along with Yomiuri Giants centerfielder Hideki Matsui and Kintetsu Buffaloes third baseman Norihiro Nakamura, that threatens to turn a national point of pride into just another major league farm system.
So far, all arrows point down. Attendance and TV ratings for Japanese baseball have been sliding for years, but last season, with Ichiro's Mariners games as competition, the drop was precipitous. Even the bellwether Giants saw their television share drop to 15% of viewers last season—the first time the Tokyo-based team's share had dipped below 20%. Meanwhile, since 1983 the percentage of baseball viewers 19 years and under has plummeted more than 66%. You can walk the streets of Tokyo for weeks without seeing a Giants hat; you'll see a Mariners logo within an hour. The recession has reduced the number of teams in Japan's Industrial League, its de facto minor league system, from 300 in the late 1980s to 90 today. There has been talk about creating an Asian league with South Korea and China to spark interest, even whispers about contraction.
Yet the success of Ichiro and the 10 other Japanese players now at work in the U.S. not only blunts any popular concern about the health of the Japanese game but also contradicts it. Never have so many Japanese players done so well at so high a level; fans can justifiably say that Japanese baseball has never been better. Last year Robert Whiting, a Tokyo resident and expert on Japanese baseball, appeared on Japanese TV and asked the host, "Doesn't this bother you? You had this great tradition of baseball, and now you've lost it. All your stars are leaving."
The host said, "No, the Japanese are very excited. It shows Japanese superiority to Americans."
It wasn't always this way. Baseball has been played in Japan since the late 1800s, and the Japan League started in 1936, but before 1995 only one Japanese player had made it to the major leagues. Reliever Masanori Murakami appeared in a total of 54 games for the San Francisco Giants in 1964 and '65, and then only because his parent club sent him to the U.S. for seasoning. But in the winter of '95 Kintetsu Buffaloes pitcher Hideo Nomo and his agent, Don Nomura, exploited a loophole in the agreement between Japanese baseball and the major leagues: if a player retired, he was free to play for whomever he wished. Nomo announced his retirement and promptly struck a deal with the Dodgers, and all Japan reacted as if he'd blown a hole in Mount Fuji. The Buffaloes' general manager resigned. Nomo's parents wept and begged him to come home. Nomura's mother and stepfather, legendary catcher Katsuya Nomura, broke off all relations with their son.
"Nomo opened the gate, and at the time people said, 'He's a traitor to Japanese baseball,'" says all-time homer king Sadaharu Oh, who manages the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks. "Now if you're a good player, people ask, 'Why don't you go to the United States?'" Oh likes it better this way. "Why not?" he says. "I wish I had the chance to go."