Central League to add playoffs

Japan’s Central League decided Tuesday to introduce postseason playoffs next year to help boost sagging attendance, following the success of the Pacific League.

Representatives from all six Central League baseball clubs gave the go-ahead to introducing playoffs with details left to be worked out later through talks with Pacific League officials.

The six clubs reached the agreement on condition that the number of regular-season games remains at 146 for each team.

“We stuck with the principle of not having playoffs for a long time, but it’s true that the playoffs in the Pacific League have had positive effects. We’ve decided to add some thrills and excitement to the postseason,” Central League President Hajime Toyokura said.

The move was welcomed by many in baseball circles, including managers of teams in both leagues.

“I’ve been thinking for a long time that it’ll be better to have playoffs. That’s what a lot of baseball fans want,” Yakult Swallows player-manager Atsuya Furuta said.

“But I want the number of regular-season games to be reduced. Fans hope to watch more meaningful games,” he added.

Orix Buffaloes manager Katsuhiro Nakamura said the playoffs in both leagues should be held under unified rules.

“It’s best to have the same rules and format for the playoffs in both leagues. Added games in the Central League postseason will help adjust the difference of the game schedules in both leagues between the regular season and the Japan Series,” he said.

Nakamura was referring to the gap of more than two weeks the Central League champion Hanshin Tigers had without playing a competitive game before losing four straight games to the Lotte Marines in last year’s Japan Series.

A potentially controversial plan involves the league intending to award the winner of the playoffs a place in the Japan Series while giving the league championship to the team that finishes the regular season in first place.

The regular-season winner of the Central League has automatically advanced to the Japanese version of the World Series against the Pacific League champion ever since the two-league system was put in place in Japanese baseball in 1950.

In recent years, several Central League clubs have suffered a slowdown in attendance due to the declining popularity of the Yomiuri Giants, historically the most popular team in Japan with a nationwide fan base.

Though most teams in the league have relied more or less on games against the Giants as a revenue source, interleague games that began last year have also eaten into their business.

The Pacific League, the less popular of the two, first had playoffs from 1973 to 1982, pitting the first-half winner against the second-half champion to decide the overall season winner for a Japan Series spot.

In a renewed attempt to increase its popularity, the Pacific League revived playoffs two years ago and has succeeded in boosting fan interest and media attention.

Under the current format of the league’s playoffs, the second- and third-place teams in the regular season play each other in the first stage, with the winner taking on the top team in the second stage.

In 2004 and 2005, the Seibu Lions and the Lotte Marines, the second-place finishers in the regular season in respective years, beat the Softbank Hawks, who topped the regular-season standings both years, in the playoffs and went on to win the Japan Series.