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Savran: Foreign market cornered in baseball

Saturday, July 21, 2001

Generally on All-Star night, I'm satisfied to flip through the vast wasteland that is much of cable TV, content to check back every inning or so.

This year's game was a bit different. It caught a greater percentage of my attention because it brought to light two huge problems in the midst of baseball's overwhelming mountain range of problems.

Whatever there is to feel good about an All-Star Game these days almost always centers on what was and not what is, or will be.

Who didn't feel good about the thunderous ovations for Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn? Who wasn't electrified when Ripken did what the legendary do -- perform prodigious feats when the spotlight shines brightest? Who doesn't appreciate greatness? It's a big reason we're sports fans.

Two years ago at Fenway Park, who couldn't feel the emotion when Ted Williams arrived, meeting with the modern-day players who, for one of the few times, seemed genuinely humbled in greatness other than their own? Who didn't feel good about baseball, and their childhoods, and themselves on that occasion?

If you didn't see Ted Williams play, your dad told you about him, just as his dad told him about Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. And someday, your son will tell your grandson about Ripken and Gwynn.

It's what makes the game special. Its legacy serves as a sheath to tie and bind one generation to the next. But will your son feel the same way about his heroes as you felt about yours?

Maybe he'll feel that way about Ichiro Suzuki, one of this baseball season's few great stories.

But his success has camouflaged the fact that he represents a potentially huge problem for the game. Now that he has attained immediate stardom through deed and curiosity, you can bet major-league teams are swarming all over the Far East like ants on a picnic lunch in search of Ichiro II. There's no guarantee they'll find him, since Ichiro I was the best player in Japan.

Still, most baseball people feel the game in Japan has progressed rapidly in the past 10 or 15 years. That country may never be a major breeding ground for major-league players, but it will produce some.

The problem is, there's no equitable mechanism to bring Japanese players here. The largest checkbook is going to win. And that is yet another advantage for big-market/big-revenue teams, as if they don't have enough already.

Granted, Seattle isn't a big market, but its ownership has big money. And surely the large Asian population and the impact of that population on Seattle must have been a major factor in Ichiro landing in the Pacific Northwest. Staying close to one's culture, in a familiar lifestyle, had to be a consideration for him, assuming all else was relatively equal.

But you can see that the teams in New York and L.A., which also have large Asian communities as well as large American dollars to throw around, will be able to capitalize more readily than a noncoastal small-market team.

Look at where most of these players have already gravitated. Chan Ho Park and Hideo Nomo with the Dodgers, Tsuyoshi Shinjo with the Mets and Shigetoshi Hasegawa with the Angels. If the scouts are correct, we're about to see an influx of Japanese and Koreans making it to the majors. The fat are going to get fatter.

We've already seen some of that with Cuban defectors like El Duque and brother Livan Hernandez. And there's no draft for Latin-American ballplayers. With a full one-third of this year's All-Star rosters being foreign born, maybe there should be.

Getting the best Latin-American players up until now has been a product of good scouting and getting there first. But with Latin Americans so prominent, it's only a matter of time before fabulous scouting gives way to fabulous wealth. That would further distance large from small and further destroy what little competitive balance remains in baseball.

I'm sure there are legal ramifications that would abound should a draft be instituted, but maybe it's time to include Latin-American players in the draft, just as North American players are.

The influx of Latin players and the potential for Asian players aren't the same. The Latin ballplayer is still playing at an amateur level.

The Japanese are already professionals, playing at what is largely considered a Class AAA level. But they're still at a higher level of competition than some teen-ager in the Dominican Republic or Panama, which makes the Latin kid more of an unknown commodity.

But when you see the Dodgers sign a 16-year-old kid and if we assume that those Asian players capable of playing in the major leagues gravitate toward either coast, it's time to bring a little structure to the procurement of foreign-born players.

The big boys already hold all the cards because they hold all the money. They don't need any additional advantages.

Stan Savran hosts a sports talk show, weeknights from 8 to 9 p.m. on WBGG-AM (970).

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