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Japanese Baseball Players Strike For First Time - 2004-09-18

For the first time in the 70-year history of Japanese professional baseball, the players have gone on strike.

All Japanese professional baseball games have been canceled this Saturday and Sunday after the players staged an unprecedented walkout. Negotiations to avert a strike of the country's most popular sport failed late Friday.

The players' union is demanding that a planned merger of two teams be postponed, or that a new franchise be allowed to take the place of the team scheduled to be eliminated in the merger. The merger will reduce the number of teams in the Pacific League from six to five.

The chairman of the Professional Baseball Players Association, Atsuya Furuta, calls the strike unavoidable.

Mr. Furuta says although a lot of fans signed petitions opposing the merger, the players were unable to convince management to hold off on the realignment. He also apologizes to those who were looking forward to enjoying the cancelled games.

At the heart of the matter is the planned merger between the Orix Blue Wave and the Kintetsu Buffaloes. During Friday's talks, Nippon Professional Baseball, the sport's governing body, reiterated that it would not accept the players' demand for a one-year freeze on the merger.

The Kintetsu team has reportedly been losing more than $35 million a year, and the owners say they cannot put the merger off for another year. The merger could eliminate as many as 100 players and personnel.

Twelve games scheduled for this Saturday and Sunday, including those involving teams battling for league championships in the Central and Pacific Leagues, were canceled. The players have threatened not to show up for any Saturday and Sunday games through the rest of the season unless a settlement with the owners is reached.

Players had originally been set to strike the previous week, but a walkout was averted at the last hour after two days of negotiations and a new deadline was set.

The players union is also angry that owners will not allow new teams to be created in time for next season.

Two Internet companies headed by entrepreneurs in their 30s have applied separately to establish new franchises. But many of the existing club owners have resisted allowing in the upstarts.

The major resistance comes from 78-year-old Tsuneo Watanabe, chairman of the Yomiuri media conglomerate, which owns the country's most popular and profitable club, the Giants of the Central League.