NAHA, Japan -- Things have come full circle. Nearly a century and a half after baseball's seeds first took hold in Asia, the game here is all grown up. Now, Major League Baseball is looking eastward for a windfall.
Asia's first pro league was founded in Japan in the 1930s, with South Korea following in 1982 and Taiwan in 1990. Though these three nations have led the way and are supplying players to the majors, the real question is whether China, with a population of 1.3 billion, can be brought into the fold.
In January, top New York Yankees executives lent their team's brand to the push for baseball development in China. Should MLB get a fraction of China's population hooked on its product, it will be a gold mine of vast potential.
Boston Red Sox executive Larry Lucchino, in Tokyo last year during the Sox's pursuit of Daisuke Matsuzaka, acknowledged that MLB is on a quest to find a major league counterpart to Chinese NBA star Yao Ming. The majors want a player who will get the nation tuned in to baseball and turned on to high-end licensed products.
"A lot of teams, not just us, are looking that way," Lucchino said.
To accomplish this, MLB has been working overtime in China, an effort that has been helped by China's buildup for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
"There's this tremendous mobilization of the Chinese psyche to be No. 1 in the world at everything, but particularly at sports," said Jim Small, managing director of MLB Japan and vice president of MLB Asia. "They want to be the best in Asia. Before they want to be the best in the world, they really, really want to be the best in Asia."
Small believes MLB can leverage that motivation to grow the game.
"It bothers them that Japan is so good in baseball, and that's a tremendous opportunity for us," he said. "They don't look at baseball as an American sport. They look at it as an Asian sport, and they see the physical makeup of the Japanese players and say, 'That guy doesn't look too much different from me.' They see that Taiwan has done very well in baseball relatively quickly, that Korea has done well relatively quickly, and they say, 'Why can't we do that?'"
Although MLB is keen to exploit China's potential, selling a game on the other side of the world comes with challenges. The major leagues have long been sending teams and All-Star squads to Japan in the offseason and have held four regular-season games in Tokyo, but it will take more to capture the continent as a whole.
"It is really hard for the fans [in Asia] to touch our brand, to touch the game, to interact with the game," Small said. "So there's two ways to fix that. One is to keep coming over here every two years. One is to have permanent teams here."
Even if the logistical problems of having teams in Asia are not solved anytime soon, Small said it is "probably probable" that MLB teams will be based there within 15 years.
Even more than its players who have exposed American fans to a different kind of baseball, Asia's greatest contribution to America's game may be its role as the catalyst that sparked MLB's new global outlook.
No major league executive has been more global-minded in his time than former Los Angeles Dodgers owner Peter O'Malley, but even O'Malley doubted Japanese fans would watch MLB teams play league games in Japan.
In 2000, however, Tokyo Dome sold out at premium prices when the Mets and Cubs opened their season.
Four years later, the Yankees and Devil Rays did the same.
The knowledge that Asian fans will watch major league baseball on TV and buy mass quantities of merchandise has transformed MLB owners 180 degrees -- from arrogant isolationists to global thinkers.
It wouldn't have happened, of course, without breakthroughs on the field.
In 1964 and '65, Asia's first major leaguer, pitcher Masanori Murakami, enjoyed brief success with the Giants after playing in Single-A Fresno in an exchange program with the Nankai Hawks. The Giants exercised an option in his minor league contract to acquire the lefty.
A tug of war ensued between MLB and Japan that canceled a postseason tour by the Pittsburgh Pirates, but Murakami remained a Giant for a season before pressure forced him home in 1966.
As the years went by, Murakami's success drifted into memory. It was not until 1994 that South Korea's Chan Ho Park became the second Asian native to take to a major league mound.
When Park made his MLB debut, he was still learning his trade. The man who changed baseball's world forever was a polished pitcher who escaped Japan's reserve system through a loophole.
The $103 million deal that brought Matsuzaka to Boston is proof that the days of slighting Asia's stars are over.
Hideo Nomo cut his ties to the Kintetsu Buffaloes by retiring. Free to play anywhere, Nomo signed with Dodgers in 1995 and joined Park in Southern California. Los Angeles became the epicenter of Nomomania.
Though considered a traitor by the Japanese baseball establishment and a large part of the media that took its cues from the teams, Nomo's brave odyssey struck a chord with Japanese fans, who riveted themselves to TVs and radios to follow his action. Soon MLB began to enjoy a larger piece of the action in Japan.
Manager Tommy Lasorda and catcher Mike Piazza also raked in endorsement deals, and it was hard to walk around Tokyo without running into someone wearing a No. 16 Dodgers T-shirt bearing Nomo's name.
Before Nomo, most major league fans knew little about Japanese ball other than immortal slugger Sadaharu Oh and that career minor leaguers and mediocre major leaguers from the States had become stars in Japan.
If that were true, many asked, how could any Japanese star be more than a fringe player in the States? To many, Nomo represented a paradox -- a player from an inferior league who could star in the majors.
Of course, no paradox exists. The teams of Japan's Central and Pacific leagues boast many world-class players, but the overall level of competition is lower because many other players would be better suited to Double-A or Triple-A.
Since the level of competition in Asia's pro leagues is not as high, most major league minds were prejudiced against Asian stars. It took Nomo, Park, Kazuhiro Sasaki and Ichiro Suzuki to correct the misconception.
Hideki Matsui carries on the tradition with the Yankees.
And the $103 million deal that brought Matsuzaka to Boston is proof that the days of slighting Asia's stars are over.
Thanks to free agency and increased major league awareness, the flow of Asian talent has grown from a trickle to a stream. Prior to 1994, free agency did not exist in Japan. It came about because the richest clubs blackmailed the second- and third-tier teams, which ended up losing top talent to more popular teams.
In the time before Nomo, no one in Japan or America guessed free agency would become an open door for players with major ambitions. Before Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) closed the Nomo loophole, Alfonso Soriano used it to skip out on his club. But by that time, there was another problem -- the sale of players to MLB clubs with Japanese connections. Hideki Irabu was sold to the San Diego Padres, who had acquired negotiating rights to Irabu from Chiba Lotte, his Japanese club.
As soon as Irabu got his wish to go to the majors, he turned around and complained he had no desire to play in San Diego.
Fear then drove MLB and NPB to develop the posting system. Unconnected MLB clubs were afraid they could be denied access to Japanese talent, while Japanese clubs feared losing players as free agents without receiving the compensation paid when stars signed within Japan.
When the Orix Blue Wave raked in a $13 million windfall in the bidding for Suzuki's negotiating rights, MLB All-Stars, on a tour of Japan at the time, scoffed at the idea a Japanese player could possibly be worth that much.
Ichiro proved to be not only a bargain but a spectacular ambassador for Asian ball. His play electrified the game on the field and powered further speculation about Asia's potential. His style is rooted in Asia's baseball culture and exemplifies why Asia has more to offer than just cash for MLB coffers.
Ichiro's play is testimony to the greatest asset of the Asian game: its differences. Because of geographic isolation, the Asian game has remained apart from an MLB brand that is becoming increasingly homogeneous.
Just as American baseball still embodies many of the threads that shaped the game in the gilded age of the 19th century, the Asian game retains elements of Asia's struggles at the dawn of the 20th century. In Japan, baseball became an analogy for the nation's struggle to stave off the influence of powerful and technologically advanced Western powers.
In Korea, the game was introduced prior to colonization by Japan and became a symbol of national pride in a time before Japan attempted to supplant Korea's culture and language with its own.
The game was introduced to Taiwan by the Japanese and fell out of favor when the island was occupied by Nationalist Chinese Armies during the Chinese Civil War. It was revived largely by the success of aboriginal elementary school teams in the late 1960s. The players of the Red Leaf school became immortals when they defeated a youth powerhouse team from Japan.
The struggle for identity has been a fundamental element of Asia's game. Played by those threatened with oppression, baseball became an allegory for survival against materially superior outsiders.
On the diamond, lack of size and experience was countered by a philosophy of superior preparation and determination. A large physique cannot be cultivated; fighting spirit can.
The result is an obsession with details that prohibits those within the culture from opting out of the most mundane drills or energy-sapping practices.
Trey Hillman, a longtime manager in the Yankees organization and Texas Rangers farm director before he came to Japan, says there is nothing like the game here.
"The Asian players, the commitment, dedication and loyalty to the game of baseball is just [remarkable]," he said. "It's my fifth year. I come out here, and I'm still shaking my head -- 'Holy cow!' It's the first day in and wow. Watch these guys play, catch and get after it!"
The high-speed pregame fielding practice that used to be part and parcel of the major league experience remains central to the Asian game.
San Francisco Giants manager Bruce Bochy, who has twice managed MLB All-Star squads in Japan, said last November he wishes he could get his players to take infield regularly and do it at Japanese speed.
Hillman, who interviewed for three major league managing jobs following his club's victory in the Japan Series last season, said fielding practice was something he would bring back to the majors if given a chance.
"One of the biggest things in being fundamentally sound is for you to take infield," Hillman said. "You take infield. It doesn't have to be every day."
The Asian game's old-time emphasis on fundamentals and one-run strategies is a throwback to the kind of major league ball played 100 years ago. It proved a major factor in the success of South Korea and Japan at the World Baseball Classic.
Yet despite the unmistakable flavor Asian players bring to the game, their leagues are under threat.
Clubs in Korea and Taiwan are struggling at the gate, while NPB is hamstrung by a feudal organization and has not been able to achieve any revenue sharing, joint marketing or joint media sales. As MLB pushes into Asia, the chances are high that owners seeking bigger returns on their investments may look to abandon NPB altogether and form a new body -- very likely as a part of MLB.
What will it mean to the fans of the game around the world if Asian leagues are swallowed up by MLB?
One of the benefits of independent Asian leagues is that players, locked out of playing time in the States, have been able to restart their careers in Asia -- before returning with some success to the majors. Cecil Fielder is the best example, but not the only one. A number of current castoffs have polished their game in Asia and could easily find good major league jobs should they desire.
If all the major leagues in Asia become part of MLB, quality players who can't buy playing time will have even fewer second chances to break through.
Another concern is that transforming baseball in Asia into another league within MLB -- think American, National and Pacific -- might carry too much major league attitude into Asia. Would the influx of so many foreign practices dilute the unique qualities of Asian baseball?
"I don't think you'll see that," Hillman said. "There's too much pride instilled in these players."
Jim Allen covers baseball for The Daily Yomiuri in Japan.