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Major league scouts search for teen prospects in Japan

September 18, 1997

NISHINOMIYA, Japan (AP) _ The cheerleaders are near tears as the high school band’s drumming and trumpeting reach a hysterical pitch under the scorching sun.

Over and over, the roaring stands, packed with a sweaty crowd of 54,000, shout the popular Japanese ballpark chant that’s a prayer for a hit: ``Kattoba-say! Kattoba-say!″

Amid the frenzy at the annual high school baseball tournament is a calmer, different sort of spectator, one more interested in the speed of fastballs than seeing either side win. They are major league scouts hunting for prospects.

``The players are good. There’s no question,″ said Fred Ferreira, an international scout for the Montreal Expos, who has twice visited the annual two-week tournament. ``They are not the type of players who have been out on a free-agent market demanding big dollars. They are young players. They’re prospects in our eyes.″

Only the best teams _ 49 out of 4,093 competing across Japan _ make it to the tournament at Koshien Stadium, home of the professional Hanshin Tigers, in Nishinomiya, about 250 miles west of Tokyo.

The success of pitcher Hideo Nomo, now in his third season with the Los Angeles Dodgers _ as well as Anaheim Angels reliever Shigetoshi Hasegawa and New York Mets left-hander Takashi Kashiwada _ has shown that Japan has plenty of talent to offer.

Theoretically, getting to the players while they’re still in high school avoids the type of negotiation battles that Nomo and other Japanese players had with their old teams while trying to sign with major league clubs.

But, in reality, the Japanese clubs are doing all they can to keep tight reins on players in high school, the breeding ground for their best rookies.

``They aren’t going to be able to sign our top players,″ said Nobuhisa Ito of the Japanese baseball commissioner’s office in Tokyo. ``They will only be able to sign the leftovers.″

There has been no mass exodus to U.S. clubs; there are fewer than 10 Japanese players in the minor leagues.

Pro teams are not allowed to approach high school players. But if players want to start negotiating with scouts, all they have to do is resign from their teams before the Japanese draft in November.

Still, signing young Japanese players has proved very difficult.

The U.S. and Japanese teams have an agreement not to interfere with each others’ contracts. Before a player can be approached, the American and Japanese baseball commissioners’ offices must be consulted to make sure he is a free agent.

In 1996, when major league clubs expressed interest in slugger Kosuke Fukudome, then with the Olympic team, they were told he had already been picked by the Kintetsu Buffaloes.

Given the situation, the Dodgers say scouting in Japan is a waste of time.

``We don’t want our image tarnished with a perception we’re raiding the Japanese leagues,″ said Dodgers official Acey Kohrogi.

The Dodgers receive dozens of letters from youngsters in Japan, wanting to be the next Nomo. ``We say, `Thank you, but no thank you,‴ Kohrogi said.

Kenny Williams, vice president of player development for the Chicago White Sox, another club that keeps a scout in Japan, said U.S. teams can’t be overly aggressive in wooing young Japanese players. After all, they wouldn’t want the Japanese to try to sign top U.S. high school players.

In fact, the Americans could lose a recruitment war.

Japanese minor league teams pay about $2,900 a month, compared with $850 a month that players usually get when starting out in U.S. rookie leagues.

Many Japanese players also stay home because they’re worried about failing in the United States and thereby jeopardizing offers from Japanese teams.

Once signed with a Japanese club players can’t become free agents until after nine years of play, a much longer wait than the six years required for players in the United States.

``I tell them they should go to the United States while they’re still young for the challenge. If things don’t work out, they can always come back,″ said Mets scout Isao Ojimi, who also frequents the annual Koshien tournament in August. ``But they hesitate.″

Kenji Ito, who idolizes Atlanta Braves’ ace Greg Maddux, was one youngster who wasn’t afraid. ``It’s an experience,″ he said.

The 18-year-old pitcher dropped out of high school in Japan to enroll in a baseball academy run by the Montreal Expos in Florida. The Expos have recently signed two other Japanese players _ a pitcher and a shortstop _ to their rookie league.

``Only fantastic players can survive in the majors,″ said 17-year-old Manabu Takushi, a right fielder for Urasoe Commercial High School in Okinawa, a semifinalist at Koshien. ``But I’d like to go. It seems like more fun to play abroad.″

High school baseball officials say they welcome major league scouts.

``It’s a way to give another dream to the kids,″ said Kazuhiro Tanabe, secretary-general of the Japan High School Baseball Federation.

End Adv for weekend editions, Sept. 20-21

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