Schoolboy with MLB designs upsets Japan

by Shigemi Sato, Agence France-Presse

Posted at Oct 28 2012 05:27 PM | Updated as of Oct 29 2012 01:27 AM

TOKYO - A precocious schoolboy pitcher with a 100-mile-an-hour fastball has set feathers flying in Japan's staid baseball establishment by vowing he will leapfrog straight to the US leagues.

Shohei Otani, 18, very publicly snubbed the closed shop of 12 Japanese teams when they held their draft in Tokyo on Thursday, saying he will not sign for one of them, despite being first choice for a champion team.

Otani, whose 160 kilometre-per-hour pitch and impressive slugging record made him a standout in the well-followed high school leagues, says he is determined to play in the United States.

With several Major League clubs sniffing around, the youngster could become the first Japanese player to move directly from high school to American baseball, further encouraging the trans-Pacific drain of talent and following in the footsteps of Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui, Yu Darvish and other stars.

"I am grateful and honoured that they named me and valued me that way," the 193 centimetre (6ft 4ins) right-hander told some 70 reporters who gathered at his Hanamaki Higashi high school in rural northern Japan.

"But my own wish to play in the United States is unchanged," said Otani, who has already met scouts from the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Texas Rangers and the Boston Red Sox.

"It is zero as far as I am concerned," he said about the possibility of changing his mind.

As well as his impressive fireballs, the youngster has also hit 56 home-runs in his high school career.

Four days ahead of the draft -- an arrangement among teams for the exclusive rights to negotiate with unsigned players -- Otani announced he would not be staying in Japan.

"Formidable players are gathering there (in MLB) from different countries. I don't want to be outdone by those players," he said.

The youngster's truculence stands out in a system accustomed to getting its own way.

"This could lead to the hollowing out of Japanese professional baseball," warned Tsunekazu Momoi, the owner of the Yomiuri Giants, one of the most prestigious clubs in Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB).

But US author Robert Whiting, who has written several books on Japanese baseball, said it was an inevitable result of the outdated practices of the NPB.

"This is the latest crack in the NPB Maginot Line," he said, referring to the the French fortification that was overrun by invading Germans in 1940, despite general belief in its impregnability.

"People are getting used to defections to the United States," he said, adding that NPB "doesn't seem capable of staunching the bleeding".

"What they need is a basic restructuring of their business model."

But the Nippon Ham Fighters, this year's champions of the NPB Pacific League, who chose him in the draft, say they are determined to have their man.

"We feel he (Otani) is the only one we want," Nippon Ham Fighters manager Hideki Kuriyama told reporters on Thursday.

"It will definitely be a positive for him to join us," he added, vowing to visit Otani's home in Hanamaki "as many times as possible."

Under league rules the Fighters are the only team entitled to negotiate with Otani until the end of March.

MLB has a gentlemen's agreement -- but no written pledge -- with NPB to stay away during this negotiating period.

Kuriyama, who has described Otani as having the potential to "be another Darvish", said the youngster needed time to develop his talents.

He said the Fighters would provide the opportunity to do that -- just as they did with the Iranian-Japanese pitching sensation before his high-profile move to the Rangers early this year.

Under MLB practice, Otani would be expected to spend some time in the minor leagues but could progress rapidly to the big time.

However, if his venture Stateside falls flat, under NPB rules Otani will have to wait up to three years before he is permitted to play for a Japanese pro club -- that is if he hasn't burned all his bridges.

But, says Whiting, a move to the US appears to be the perfect fit for the youngster.

"I think Otani could spend as little as three years in the minors," said Whiting. "He has got all the tools to succeed in the major leagues. He also seems extremely determined."

"He will be going to a place where the manager and coaches will treat him as an adult and not a boot camp inductee as is the case with NPB."

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