By Jack Gallagher
TOKYO, Japan -- "The nail that stands out gets pounded down."
This an old Japanese proverb that signifies what happens when a person tries to be different from the group and doesn't go along with the program.
When Shohei Otani -- the much-heralded right-hander from Hanamaki Higashi High School in Iwate Prefecture -- announced Sunday that he had reversed his decision to bypass Nippon Professional Baseball for the majors, signing instead with the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, one could not help but think that history was repeating itself.
The 18-year-old Otani, who stands 6-4 and possesses a 100-mph fastball, informed Japanese clubs back in October that he did not want to be drafted and would not sign with a club if he was. In NPB's amateur draft more than one of the 12 clubs can select a player in the first round. If this occurs there is a lottery to see which team gets the rights.
Only the Fighters, based in Sapporo, ignored Otani's wishes and chose him with their first-round selection. The move was certain to exert intense pressure on Otani, and that's exactly what it did.
A dozen MLB teams had scouted Otani, with the most ardent pursuers said to have been the Los Angeles Dodgers, Texas Rangers, Boston Red Sox and Baltimore Orioles. Sources said the Dodgers appeared to be the most eager of the group. Otani would have been banned from playing in the NPB for three years if he had signed with an MLB club.
"I think I will start in the minor leagues, but I want to challenge in the majors," said Otani initially. "It has been my dream since entering high school. I felt that I wanted to go (to the majors) while I was still young. I have admiration for Japanese pro baseball too, but more so for the major leagues."
Just two months later he was singing a decidedly different tune when he met with reporters on Sunday alongside Nippon Ham manager Hideki Kuriyama.
"I thought that it would be better to get my career [in the majors] off the ground quickly so I would be active for a long time," he said. "But my feelings changed gradually, and ultimately I made the decision [to stay] after discussions with my family."
According to The Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan's largest newspaper, the Fighters prepared a 25-page dossier for Otani detailing the difficulties facing young athletes going abroad. This document was said to be pivotal in dissuading the youngster.
"There were things I didn't know," Otani said. "The material made me change my perception."
It's hardly a surprise that giving Otani a file full of negative details and anecdotes had a profound impact. This, along with using Otani's parents -- who clearly wanted him to stay in Japan -- as a wedge, put the star on the defensive. Suddenly his great ambition had been questioned and now he had to find reasons to justify it. One can only wonder whether, if Otani had instead been given a file full of the positive experiences of the nearly 25,000 Japanese studying at U.S. universities, his outlook might have been different.
With nobody pushing back from the other side of the Pacific, the battle for Otani's talents became a one-sided affair. Nippon Ham met with him several times and, in predictable fashion, he caved in to their advances. Otani agreed to a ¥100 million ($1.2 million) signing bonus and ¥50 million ($600,000) in incentives. His first-year salary will be ¥15 million ($180,000). Nippon Ham also offered Otani -- who has not yet played one game in the pros -- the No. 11 uniform worn by Texas Rangers hurler Yu Darvish when he starred for the team.
Though he certainly could have made more money at the outset by signing with an MLB club, Otani chose to stay home for less. The Fighters reprised a ploy executed by the Seibu Lions with another pitcher at Otani's high school three years ago. Southpaw Yusei Kikuchi, who stated his desire to play in the majors in 2009, was courted by approximately 20 MLB and NPB teams. Kikuchi ultimately caved into the cultural pressure exerted by those close to him and joined Seibu.
Best-selling author Robert Whiting, author of the classic "You Gotta Have Wa" and "The Meaning of Ichiro," feels Nippon Ham played its cards just right with Otani.
"I think the Fighters skillfully pointed out the advantages to him staying in Japan and made him some kind of promise to let him go MLB via posting after 5 or 6 years or so," he said. "I think they handled it quite well. If I was Otani, I would have done the same thing."
Though many feel Otani did make the right decision by trying to start out in the Japanese system before going to the majors, there is no guarantee that he will ever get the chance. Numerous young players have had their arms ruined by a system that often sees pitchers tossing as many as 200 pitches a day during training camp.
Some cite Daisuke Matsuzaka's struggles Stateside as a prime example of a pitcher who had much more mileage on his arm than his age would have indicated when he arrived in the majors.
"I do think Otani's choice is best," said Masanori Murakami, the first Japanese player to appear in the majors when he pitched for the San Francisco Giants in 1964-65, and now a baseball analyst for NHK television. "He would have been going up against a lot of young players from the Dominican and South America in the minors in the States, which would not have been easy.
"He will receive more instruction at this age in Japan than he would have in the States," Murakami stated. "I don't think there is much coaching and teaching in the minors these days. If a kid has talent he will stand out."
What's most interesting is how Nippon Ham is being portrayed as almost benevolent in their concern for Otani by the Japanese media. The only problem with that viewpoint is they stand to take make a fair sum of a cash if Otani eventually does go to the majors, just like they did when Darvish made the jump last year and garnered a $51.7 million posting fee.
Which raises other issues.
Was there a quid pro quo to Otani joining the Fighters? Like a promise to post him after a certain number of years? Or an illegal payment to the family, as has been alleged in several instances in the past involving NPB clubs?
Was this entire incident just a shell game to dissuade other NPB teams from drafting Otani so he would only be selected by the Fighters?
There is a precedent for this type of maneuver. Back in the 1980s, star PL Gakkuen pitcher Masumi Kuwata told NPB clubs he was going to attend Waseda University in Tokyo and not to waste a draft pick on him.
Sure enough, all the teams passed on him except one -- the Yomiuri Giants. The other clubs cried foul, but there was nothing they could do, and Kuwata went on to join and have a long and successful career with the Giants.
When the identical situation occurred with Otani, it didn't sit well with some of those influential in the game.
"There were a lot of backroom discussions," Rakuten Eagles manager Senichi Hoshino told Nikkan Sports on Monday. "If you are going to have such things going on, it could ruin the draft."
One NPB general manager, who requested anonymity, traced the problem in the Otani case to the setup between the NPB and the amateur ranks.
"NPB clubs are prohibited from contacting amateur players until they submit a document stating their intentions to turn pro," he said. "This usually happens in September. So we have only a month and a half to talk with the prospects before the draft. This is a real problem."
The GM says this is how Otani began dreaming of playing in the majors straight out of high school.
"My understanding is that MLB scouts have been talking to Otani since he was in junior high," he said. "He was essentially brainwashed by these guys into thinking it would be an easy path to the majors. He didn't have enough information to be able to compare the NPB with the MLB."
With MLB clubs having invested considerable time and resources in courting Otani, does the GM think the pitcher has hurt his chances of playing in the majors with his reversal?
"I don't think that is going to happen," the GM said. "If he is good enough he will get an MLB contract and good money."
NPB Commissioner Ryozo Kato, a former Japanese Ambassador to the U.S., said back in October that he didn't think Otani should be ostracized for wanting to be different.
"I think we should respect his (Otani's) decision," Kato commented. "If there is a proposal I think it will be debated, but basically I believe it is important that Japanese baseball becomes more attractive to players. Looking ahead at the future, I think all of the 12 teams must think about ways of making it more attractive."
The reality is that nothing has been done in the ensuing two months to make the game here more attractive. The Fighters simply utilized an old strategy and broke Otani's will with questionable data and intense pressure.
They pounded the nail down.
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Gallagher is the executive sports editor of The Japan Times in Tokyo. He has been a sports journalist in Japan for 18 years and has been honored for his writing both domestically and internationally. He was previously an executive in public relations for the NBA and NFL Europe.