The Ryukyu Blue Oceans, Okinawa’s first professional baseball team, announced on October 1 that 15 players had signed free agency. 27 players had signed free agency by September, but by October 1, 21 players had signed free agency, leaving only six players on the roster. Among the players who became free agents, not a few left on their own due to growing distrust of the team executives’ handling of unpaid or reduced compensation. What had happened to the team that had just been established just two years ago, in July 2019, with the aim of becoming a new member of the Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB)?
“We’ve been struggling with our financial situation since last year… We had an annual salary system, and the total amount divided by the number of months was paid to us every month. However, due to the influence of Corona, our remuneration was continuously reduced from the middle of last year. This year, I was not paid in May and again in August.
The unpaid amount for May was transferred in June, but it was not the full amount, and we have yet to receive the amount for August and beyond. We wanted to ask the president of the team, Mr. Kitagawa, and the manager, Mr. Shimizu, why, but they couldn’t give us a satisfactory explanation…”
One of the players who was in the team revealed with a sigh.
The Ryukyu Blue Oceans, inaugurated in July 2019, had Naoyuki Shimizu, an ace right fielder for the Chiba Lotte, as manager and invited Yasushi Tao, the first manager of the Rakuten Eagles, as senior director and general hitting coach (Tao retired last year). In terms of players, the team has acquired several players with first-class experience, including Kyohei Muranaka, a left-handed pitcher who played for Yakult, and Hiroki Yoshimura, a centerfielder for DeNA and Softbank (both retired last year). The team was aiming to enter the NPB in three years’ time by taking its own route without belonging to any specific league and playing games with second-string professional baseball teams, independent leagues, and adult teams to improve its ability.
Okinawa is home to Okinawa Shogaku and Konan, both of which have won Koshien championships in high school baseball, and nine professional baseball teams set up camp there every spring. In addition, at the beginning of 2020, about six months after the team’s inauguration, SoftBank Chairman Sadaharu Oh announced on a news program that the Ryukyu Blue Ocean’s plan to expand to 16 teams was aimed at boosting baseball enthusiasm by widening the gap between the teams.
The independent league, which has 26 teams nationwide, is formed by local teams and holds its own games. Since 2009, the league has been positioned as a professional league, similar to the NPB, but the players are not financially well off, as their compensation is around 100,000 yen per month and the contract period is around six months. However, Ryukyu players, even those with no professional baseball experience, started out with a 12-month contract at 200,000 yen per month, almost four times better treatment than other independent league teams. However, after February 2020, when the team’s activities began in earnest, the spread of the new coronavirus throughout Japan began to cause problems. The aforementioned player continues.
“In the beginning, I was grateful because I was getting paid even when I couldn’t work. However, due to the Corona disaster, my remuneration continued to decrease from April last year. Initially, we were notified in advance that the amount for April and May would be ‘reduced,’ but sooner or later, the money was transferred with the reduced amount even though we were not notified, and later we received documents notifying us of the reduction. Even when our activities resumed and we were able to practice and compete, there were months when the amount was reduced as a result.”
Two years have passed since the new corona was introduced, and there is still no sign of a solution. In February of this year, at the beginning of the second year of the new corona outbreak, Ryukyu signed the following memorandum with the players, in anticipation of the possibility that scheduled games and practices might not be possible depending on the status of the new corona infection.
In February of this year, at the beginning of the second year of the program, the following memorandum of understanding was signed with the players: “In the event that you are completely unable to perform due to the declaration of a state of emergency or other reasons, your compensation for that period will be reduced by 100%. In the event that the player is unable to perform due to travel restrictions or other reasons, the remuneration shall be reduced by 50%.
This means that if a whole practice or a scheduled game is cancelled due to the spread of the new corona, my salary will be cut. The players had to sign this memorandum of understanding before they could participate in the spring camp.
The players’ distrust of the team reached its peak when they were notified that their salaries would be reduced for June. As another player put it, “In Okinawa, we had a meeting on May 23.
“During the period from May 22 to June 9, we had practice games with Hiroshima’s second team, the Giants’ third team, Saitama Seibu’s second team, and Chiba Lotte’s second team in Yamaguchi and Kanto. But after the expedition was over and we returned to Okinawa, all the players received a letter from the team saying that their salaries for June would be reduced because they could not hold the games.
This magazine obtained a copy of the notice, which was issued uniformly to all the players, dated June 23 by Tomoya Kitagawa, the company president.
The document reads as follows
As of June 10, the reduction in the contract and memorandum of understanding will be applied, as it will not be possible to hold boxing matches due to the declaration of a state of emergency in Okinawa Prefecture.
When many of the players received this notice, their heads were filled with “? They had been on a tour of the Kanto region since May 22, and had completed their games. After returning from Okinawa, they were able to complete the few full practices that were scheduled before the notice came.
“I was able to complete several full practices before I received the notice. The notice said that my salary was reduced despite my full attendance. “The players, who were not satisfied with the reason for the reduction, asked manager Shimizu, who had taken on the role of GM midway through the season, for an explanation, and further requested that they be allowed to practice as they were.
During this voluntary training period, some of the players spoke directly with President Kitagawa on the phone. “Some of the players spoke directly with President Kitagawa on the phone during the voluntary training period, saying , “I want to know the reason for the reduction. I’m not going to discuss it with you (the players who called),” he said. He added, “Who the hell do you think you are? If you don’t practice, we won’t pay you.” The players were told in a high-handed manner to resume general practice.
At the resumed general practice, a meeting was held and the players heard the reason for the reduction in compensation from Manager Shimizu. The players who listened interpreted it as follows.
He said, “During normal times, we can use the facilities and stadiums without any problems, but since the state of emergency has been declared, we are being allowed to use them on a special basis. He explained that such a situation falls under the category of ‘a situation affected by the state of emergency,’ so his compensation would be cut.
Comparing the wording of the “memorandum at the beginning of the fiscal year” and the “letter of notification dated June 23” obtained by this magazine, we have to say that it is difficult to interpret the above. In fact, one of the players revealed that
In fact, one of the players said, “It’s not written (in the memorandum or notice), but if the company says that it’s based on that interpretation (as explained at the meeting after the resumption of general practice) and that’s why we’re going to reduce the amount, we have no choice. I think more and more people have given up after this incident, thinking that it’s impossible to ask for improvement.
The suffering of the team’s management in the wake of the Corona disaster must be unimaginable, but the fact that the players have to suffer the brunt of it must not be satisfactory. How does Tomoya Kitagawa, the president of the Ryukyu baseball team, who is rarely seen in front of the players, take it? In a telephone interview with our website, he said
It seems that this year, following May’s salary, August’s salary has been delayed, is that correct?
“We are doing everything according to the contract and the memorandum of understanding. However, I can’t answer the details of the agreement because of confidentiality obligations.
–What is the reason for the reduction in compensation?
“One of the points is that we declared a state of emergency.
–Even under the declaration of a state of emergency, the team went on expeditions to Yamaguchi and Kanto, and was able to digest normal practice after returning to Okinawa. Still, the players don’t seem to be satisfied with the reduction…
“We don’t know what the players are talking about, but we are paying them according to the contract. I don’t know what the players are saying, but we are paying them according to the contract.
–How do you feel about the situation where a large number of players have left the team and there are no 9 players left?
“We don’t know what the players are saying, but everything has been paid according to the contract. I have no intention of taking an active role. I don’t anticipate that we won’t be able to get 9 players, and I’ve heard that there are quite a few people coming to the tryouts, so I’m confident that we’ll be able to get over 20 players. I’m confident that we can do even better than we did this year.
Shimizu, the GM and manager of the team, who was in charge of negotiating contracts with the players, stated.
“When I look at the current situation from a bird’s-eye view, I wonder if we’ll be okay. I have to ask myself, ‘Is this situation safe? I think we need to talk with the team about what kind of policy the company is going to adopt in acquiring players. Once that policy is decided, I would like to follow it and make my own choices, just like the players.
When asked if he would sign a contract for next season, he could only say, “I am currently under contract, so I can only say that I am working.
In fact, only four players showed up at the practice field on the day of the restart on October 3. One of the players who left the team said, “If this is the way it’s going to be, I’m not going to play.
One of the players who left the team said, “If it was going to be like this, it would have been better if they had said clearly, ‘We don’t have the money, so we can’t pay your salary. If possible, I would have liked to stay with this team for as long as possible…”
A rift between the top management and the players has emerged at a baseball team that was aiming to enter the NPB. It may take some time to restore trust.