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Weekend games called off

TOKYO -- Japanese baseball players elected to stage the
first strike in the history of the sport in Japan on Friday after
extended negotiations with team officials failed to reach an
agreement.

Japan's professional players had threatened to strike this
weekend unless a one-year freeze was placed on the merger of the
Pacific League's Kintetsu Buffaloes and Orix BlueWave.

The strike will wipe out all games this weekend and possibly all
weekend games between now and the end of the season. Weekday games
will be played as scheduled.

Negotiations will resume next week in an attempt to salvage the
remaining weekend games.

"The players have elected to go on strike," Lotte Marines
representative Ryuzo Setoyama said. "I want to extend our
apologies to the fans around the country. The players asked for a
one-year freeze on the merger of Orix and Kintetsu, but given the
dire financial conditions of these two teams, that was impossible."

On Thursday, team officials told the Japanese baseball players'
association that a freeze on the merger was impossible.

"We asked for a one-year freeze," said Yakult catcher Atsuya
Furuta, head of the players' association. "We were told that was
impossible, and I sincerely want to apologize to all the fans who
were planning on going to watch games this weekend."

There were also reports in Japanese media late Friday that
commissioner Yasuchika Negoro would step down to take
responsibility for the strike.

The players were convinced that having five teams in the Pacific
League and six teams in the Central League was not workable in
terms of scheduling.

Friday's negotiating session was extended four hours beyond the
5 p.m. deadline, but the two sides were unable to reach an agreement
that would keep games going this weekend.

Japanese baseball players and owners averted the strike a week
ago after the owners assured the players there would be no further
mergers, but the refusal to put the merger off for a year led the
players to stage the first walkout in the 70-year history of
Japanese baseball.

The Buffaloes reportedly have lost $36 million a year
because of a drop in attendance and rising player salaries. The team's
owners have said they can't put the merger off for
another year.

"In talks with the players, we promised reforms," Setoyama said. "We promised to improve the environment for new teams to
enter the league, and we explained in great detail the financial
conditions of the two teams according to the demands of the
players."

Another main issue was the admission of new teams.

Two Japanese Internet service companies have applied to set up
new teams. The players wanted any new teams to join the pro leagues
next season while the owners maintained that 2006 would be the
earliest a new team could enter Japan professional baseball.

Earlier this month, the owners of Japan's 12 professional teams
voted to approve the merger between the Buffaloes and BlueWave, a
move that could result in up to 100 players and team personnel
losing their jobs.

The owners also said they will maintain the two-league format
that has been in place since 1950 and will hold more meetings to
discuss the introduction of interleague games for next season.

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 -- to make Pacific League teams
more profitable.