What A Hit!

When the New York Mets face the Chicago Cubs in Major League Baseball's March 29 season opener, most fans in both cities will be at home fast asleep. Just after 6 a.m. New York time, the major leagues' lifetime home-run champion, Hank Aaron, will toss the ceremonial first pitch before a sellout crowd in Japan's Tokyo Dome. The road show, Major League Baseball's longest and most ambitious ever, marks a new campaign to export the American-style game--complete with umpires, mascots and a seventh-inning stretch. "The best way to show your product is to take your players to other countries," says Paul Beeston, MLB president and chief operating officer. "We're trying to grow the game."

MLB's big marketing push comes nearly a decade after Michael Jordan and the National Basketball Association brought the slam-dunk--and a tsunami of related merchandise--to Japan. America's baseball barons are, after all, a notoriously conservative bunch. But compared with the men who run the Japanese game, the Americans are absolute visionaries. And therein may lie opportunity--for both sides. The Japanese public has been steadily losing interest in baseball. Established to promote their parent companies, the country's 12 pro squads are underdeveloped franchises with few stars. In the boom years that didn't matter, says Jim Allen, author of a yearly guide to Japanese baseball. "Only now are some owners looking to their teams to make money on their own." American baseball, on the other hand, has grown ever gaudier, with rock-and-roll between innings and pumped-up players smashing home-run records. Japanese fans noticed, and in 1995, the year ace pitcher Hideo Nomo defected to the Los Angeles Dodgers, they started to pay even closer attention. Last year Japan's television and cable stations aired more than 550 American games, or 23 per week, during the regular season, up from four per week in 1994. The coverage "has attracted a different generation from traditional fans--teens and young adults," says Jack Sakagaki, whose sports-marketing firm, JSM, represents the U.S. major leagues in Japan. "They've seen the speed, power and excitement of American baseball, and they love it."

Now the Americans mean to fan the flames of that infatuation. Unlike previous All-Star tours, which were slack postseason exhibitions, this month's games will be real contests that count in the 2000 pennant race. Working with sponsors that include AM/PM mini-marts and sports-gear-maker Mizuno, the league is courting kids and expanding Japan's traditional (adult male) fan base. The tour will begin with exhibition games against Japan's Yomiuri Giants and Seibu Lions; then the Cubs and Mets will square off in a two-game series. "Real Major League Baseball! Right in front of our eyes!" gushes retired Yokohama Bay Stars talent scout Tadahiro Ushigome. "This is a great opportunity for Japanese fans."

And maybe for Japanese baseball executives, too. The Americans intend to show off not just their game, but also the bells and whistles that have boosted U.S. attendance (and, to be sure, offended many purists). MLB began negotiating the tour with its Japanese partner, the Yomiuri Shimbun, in the mid-1990s. From day one MLB executives demanded final say on all aspects of the contests. Last year Yomiuri agreed, tossing the Americans the keys to the Tokyo Dome. The Americans imported Shea Stadium's video-board software and high-decibel canned cheers. "We've taken over presentation of the games because we think it's important to Japanese fans," says Paul Archey, MLB's vice president for international business. "We're trying to create a Major League Baseball experience rather than a Japanese baseball experience, and the two are very different."

They didn't use to be. Baseball landed in Japan in 1907 and took root as a controlled, conservative sport, much like its American model at the time. Today pitchers still dominate, team play is still stressed and tie games are allowed to end in draws so neither side loses face. Americans, in contrast, now favor a freewheeling game with power hitting, high-scoring innings--and marketable superstars.

The current sensation--in Japan, even more than in America--is Slammin' Sammy Sosa. The Chicago Cubs slugger recently replaced basketball great Jordan as the foreign athlete Japanese most adore. He's the smiling face of this year's tour and spokesman for its primary sponsor, the convenience-store chain AM/PM. Its mini-marts now sell Sosa dolls, trading cards and videotape highlights from his 1998 home-run duel with St. Louis Cardinals star Mark McGwire. Participants in AM/PM's scratch-card contest vie for team pins, official league cell-phone straps and tickets to next week's games. The grand prizes: 18,000 Internet-friendly Sosa Phones that flash Sammy's cartoon figure on a stamp-size LCD screen.

Sosa's fan appeal is no accident. He has built a following in Japan with repeated visits to sign autographs, hold clinics for young players and do advertisements for companies like Merrill Lynch, Doritos and mineral-water maker Crystal Geyser. Sosa's rise from poverty in the Dominican Republic to baseball superstardom enthralls the Japanese media. Sakagaki, Sosa's agent, is turning his client's biography into a one-hour animated documentary scheduled for release in November.

But it isn't just Sosa that hip young Japanese like. In 1999, Japan accounted for 45 percent of MLB licensed merchandise sales outside the United States and Canada. In Shibuya, Tokyo's trendiest teen enclave, licensed apparel is all the rage. The shop World Sports East does a brisk trade in American baseball cards, jerseys and caps,but sells little Japanese baseball merchandise. "You can't seriously imagine buying a cap like that, it's bad style," explains a salesclerk, pointing to a dusty Yomiuri Giants hat that fits badly and costs $92. The store's entire inventory of Japanese baseball merchandise fits in a single glass case. Nearby, a young man tests a $45 New York Yankees cap, spinning the brim forward and back as he models it for his girlfriend. A rack holds scores of alternatives from the Cubs, Mets and other American teams. "These," the clerk says, "will disappear in a week."

On the Sunday before their season opener, the American squads will reach out to their youngest fans. Billed as Kids' Day at the Tokyo Dome, the teams will hold an open practice attended by some 30,000 Little Leaguers and their parents. Mizuno distributed free tickets at hundreds of sporting-goods shops across Japan. "This gives kids the opportunity to come in, see our players and leave with something in their hands," says Archey. "Then, hopefully, we've got them as fans for life."

Japan's baseball teams still don't seem to think that way. Yomiuri's initial reaction to the Kids' Day proposal according to an American involved in the negotiation, was: "Sounds like a lot of work. Why do we need to do this?" For Yomiuri, the question was valid: the Giants sell out most games, enjoy the support of 60 percent of Japan's baseball fans and attract millions of viewers for each televised game. That's not true for Japan's 11 other pro teams, however; the nation's seemingly endless recession has left the weakest in serious financial trouble. Meanwhile, thanks to Japan's low birthrate and the increased popularity of youth soccer, 20 percent of the nation's Little League teams--123 squads in all--have folded since 1995.

Major League Baseball might just produce a turnaround. Nomo's flight in 1995 began a steady talent drain to the U.S. major leagues (12 Japanese players are now under contract in America). Yet it also energized the sport for a younger generation that enjoys seeing their countrymen succeed in America.

"Kids are attracted to Major League Baseball," says Kazuo Hasegawa, media-relations chief for Japan's baseball commissioner. "Then they get into Japanese baseball and come to our games. That's what we want to see, and why we support the tour." If it goes well, there are indications that the league might make Tokyo a permanent fixture on its opening-day calendar. That, too, would be good for Japanese teams--if for no other reason than to teach them how to sell their sport.