Tuesday, December 05, 2006
It occurred to me, as I pondered all of the fuss being made about the Red Sox and Matsuzaka, that the Phillies ought to steal a page from the Mariners and Red Sox and go East for talent.
Sadly, the Phillies history when it comes to racial issues is less than exemplary. Manager Ben Chapman was vigorous in assailing Jackie Robinson during his historic season in 1947. General Manager Herb Pennock and President Robert Carpenter built a young juggernaut out of the Wiz Kids in 1950,and then watched it collapse as racially integrated teams like the Dodgers and Giants raided the Negro Leagues, and the Phillies remained still. The lily-white Phillies collapsed and never competed again. In 1969 Curt Flood refused to be dealt to the Phillies rather than play for a team he saw as racist. The perception that the club’s management, an insular bunch, preferred white players to black ones because the core of the Phillies fan base consists of blue-collar white guys has dauntingly followed the club for years.
Pat Gillick, an outsider who spent the bulk of his career overseeing baseball teams in Toronto and Seattle, has helped me change my pessimism about the Phillies close-mindedness. I think the team’s decision to move white, blue-collar Jim Thome in favor of Ryan Howard was a testament to how far the team has come of late. Which is why I hope Gillick, who brought Ichiro Suzuki to the Mariners in 2001, will remember what a bring, shining success Ichiro was for Seattle and thinks about replicating that success.
The effect Ichiro had on the Mariners, a mildly successful franchise that had never really known success until the last decade or so, was electric. One observer to Ichiro’s first season said: “Japan had gone from a country that sporadically watched American baseball to one that watched the Seattle Mariners games with something approaching religious fervor …” (Meaning of Ichiro at 30.) The city of Seattle saw a 20% spike in hotel and airline reservations due almost exclusively to Ichiro from Japanese tourists coming to Seattle to watch their hero play. The Mariners made a killing off of TV and radio and merchandise. Spurred by Ichiro’s stunning play in ’01 – he won both the Rookie of the Year award and the MVP – the Mariners tied the all-time MLB record for wins in a season with 116. The financial windfall that the Mariners and Seattle realized in the early part of the decade is still having an effect on the team today.
Incidentially, for more on Ichiro and the effect of Japanese players in the MLB check out the excellant The Meaning of Ichiro by Robert Whitting.
I think the Philadelphia area would be fertile ground for Japanese / Far Eastern enthusiasm for Phillies baseball. Asian / Pacific Islanders account for roughly 4.2% of the Philadelphia Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) in the last census, not far off the national number of 4.3%. True, places like Seattle and San Francisco have much larger percentages of people of Asian descent (11% and 22% respectively), but for a city on the Eastern seaboard, Philadelphia has a fairly large number of people of Asian descent. Asian / Pacific Islanders are more likely to live in the Philly region than, say, Pittsburgh (1.3%). I also submit that the percentage of people immigrating to the Philadelphia region from the Far East is only growing. E.g., amongst those citizens born in another country, 38% of foreign-born Philadelphians are from the Pacific Rim, a much larger percentage than the national total of 27%, and a percentage much more comparable to Seattle (49%) or San Francisco (52%) than I expected. The opportunity to bring in tourists and have consumers buy Phillies products is certainly there. Japan is the world’s third-largest economy after the U.S. and China. Money can be made.
In addition to being active in attempting to raid Japanese baseball teams for talent, the Phillies ought to be far-sighted: Japan is not the only Pacific Rim nation that plays baseball. Taiwan and Korea have talented players, and – if the Phillies really want to be ahead of the curve – China has begun to develop baseball talent. Banned by the Cultural Revolution in 1969, Baseball has made a comeback in the last decade as China tries to build a baseball team capable of competing in the 2008 Olympics. The Chinese started a pro league in 2002, and have really begun to nurture talent. Although the Chinese fared badly in the World Baseball Classic (0-3, .185 Batting Average, 9.72 ERA), there is talent and determination there. A friend of mine went to China in the summer of 2005 and saw a Chinese baseball game and noted the extreme level of interest and the desire of the Chinese to bring players to the major leagues.
Imagine the impact if the Phillies sign the first Chinese baseball player. (Well, second, I think the Mariners signed a player or two in ’03 or ’04.)
What I am arguing for is a little imagination on the part of the Phillies brass with a potential payoff that could be tremendous.
Think of the opportunity to wash away the sad memories of racism that have plagued the team throughout history.
Think of the opportunity to close the talent gap with the Mets, our archrivals to the north, and to compete in inter-league play with the Yankees and Red Sox.
Think of the potential financial windfall.
Think of the potential to chart a bold new course in the history of the game by culling a place like China for talent.
Go East, Pat Gillick. Go East.
Howard and Utley are actually both pretty popular in Japan; when Utley's hitting streak was going on earlier this year it actually showed up in the Japanese press quite a bit as well, which surprised me.
Yes, the Japanese ownership has had a huge effect on which players the Mariners have and have not gone for. Yamauchi basically told the Mariners this year that they weren't bidding on Golden Boy Matsuzaka. Given what happened, it's a good thing.
I don't think China's baseball is really that far along, though they have a few promising players. The pecking order in Asian baseball is still Japan-Korea-Taiwan-China, although the Taiwanese leagues have been challenging that lately -- the CPBL champion La New Bears upset the KBO champion Samsung Lions in the Asia Series last month, and barely lost to the Nippon Ham Fighters on an unearned run, which was pretty awesome. But the China teams have gotten slaughtered every time they've shown up, pretty much. On the other hand, I think Philly as a city would be a lot more friendly for someone from China or Taiwan than from Japan.
On the other hand, I hate the idea of Japan becoming a minor league for the MLB. It's like, how can you develop talent if the top guys are always jumping ship and your fans are staying home to watch MLB games instead of coming to the park?