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Last-minute agreement reached

TOKYO -- Japanese baseball players won
concessions from management Friday related to a merger,
staving off a historic strike that would have been another blow
for a game suffering declining popularity and the flight of top
stars to the United States.

The players rescinded their threat to walk out after
representatives of the 12 professional ballclubs agreed to review
an earlier decision to push ahead with the merger of two teams in
the six-team Pacific League.

"There will be no strike in the next two days," Atsuya
Furuta, chairman of the Japan Baseball Players Association, told
a news conference after two days of last-ditch talks.

The players' union had decided to strike every weekend in
September, beginning Saturday, unless the plans to merge the
Kintetsu Buffaloes and the Orix BlueWave, both based in western
Japan, were shelved.

"I want to believe in the possibility that the Buffaloes may
be saved," Furuta said, adding that the two sides would continue
talking and that management would get back to the players next
week on whether there were any such chances.

Management representatives also agreed to scrap financial
requirements for purchasing ballclubs. The requirements have been
criticized as making it difficult for potential investors to buy
a team.

Currently, if a third party wanted to buy a ballclub, it
would have to pay 3 billion yen ($1=109.41 yen). It would have to pay 6 billion
yen if it wanted to create a new team. The high fees were seen as
one factor why Kintetsu sought the merger with Orix rather than
seeking a new owner.

Players still have the option to strike on weekends starting
Sept. 18, depending on the reply from management.

Still, fans were delighted to hear that the game would go on.

"I'm really glad because I had tickets to Sunday's game,"
said one fan on TV. "Although I don't like the idea of a merger,
what I enjoy is watching the games."

A strike, which would have been the first in 70 years of
Japanese professional baseball, certainly would have dealt a blow
to what was once the nation's favorite sport, and the furore has
grabbed headlines even in financial dailies.

According to one estimate, the total economic loss for the
month from the walkout, including gate receipts and TV revenue,
would have amounted to over 10 billion yen ($91.39 million).

Most fans appeared to sympathize with the players, and the
media has painted a picture of arrogant owners making decisions
behind closed doors, ignoring the voices of the fans and the
players, some of whom will lose their jobs in the merger.

The owners say that with most teams in the red, the merger is
a way to keep Japanese baseball alive, not kill it, while the
players insist that cutting the number of teams would just
accelerate the falling interest in the sport.

Some analysts said a strike could serve as a badly needed wake-up call for both sides to address the fundamental problems facing the Japanese game, including falling attendance and TV ratings and the exodus of stars such as Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui to U.S. Major League Baseball.

"The strike would provide an opportunity for both sides to
think about the fundamental issues," said Takenori Emoto, a
former ace pitcher with the Hanshin Tigers and now a baseball
commentator.

Emoto said that the players and management were both to blame for
the falling popularity of the game and that they ought to share
the burden in an effort to turn things around.

He said a salary cap should be introduced for the players,
while the management should get rid of the requirements necessary
for newcomers to purchase a team.

Although far below the MLB's highest salary of $24 million earned by Alex Rodriguez of the New York Yankees, Japan's highest-paid player, foreign import Roberto Petagine, cashes in an estimated $7 million a year.

"Both the players and the owners, they've been near-sighted
and never gave much thought to the future of Japanese baseball.
And what we've ended up with is this fuss," Emoto said.