Union unhappy about looming team merger

TOKYO -- Japan's professional players will strike for the
first time if owners proceed with a proposed merger of two teams,
the players' union said Monday.

The players decided at a meeting that if the merger between the
Pacific League's Orix BlueWave and Kintetsu Buffaloes is not
suspended, they will refuse to play, said Yakult Swallows catcher
Atsuya Furuta, who heads the players' association. The players will
meet with team officials this week to try to reach a last-minute
deal, he added.

In a preliminary vote that raises the likelihood of the
Orix-Kintetsu merger, representatives of the 12 professional
baseball teams endorsed the deal Monday at a meeting called by
the commissioner's office, Central League President Hajime Toyokura

"If the players strike, we are considering suing the players to
seek compensation for damages," Toyokura said.

The owners are widely expected to give final approval to the
merger Wednesday, which could lead to up to 100 players and team
personnel losing jobs. It also could spur more mergers, reducing
the two Central and Pacific leagues of six teams each to one
10-team league.

The players have said three conditions, including a one-year
freeze on the proposed merger, must be met by Friday. If not, they
will refuse to play all weekend games for the rest of the month,
public broadcaster NHK said.

Earlier Monday, a Japanese high court upheld a district court
ruling allowing the merger to proceed, rejecting an appeal by the

A strike would come 10 years after the one by major league
players in 1994. A strike could affect the playoffs and Japan
Series championships in October and possibly a major league
all-star tour of Japan in November.

Many owners in the less profitable Pacific League are said to
favor a single league to cash in on the higher revenues from the
Central League's Yomiuri Giants. The Giants have long been Japan's
most popular team and draw large crowds throughout Japan.

A merger is opposed by many fans, and critics argue there are
less drastic measures -- interleague play and more equitable
distribution of TV broadcast rights.

Tsuneo Watanabe, the Yomiuri Giants' former owner who still
wields great influence, has proposed moving the Giants to the
Pacific League. He suggested such a step would maintain balance if
the Pacific League were reduced because of a merger.