TOKYO -- Hiromitsue Ochiai's best years as a baseball player are almost certainly behind him but his moment for the record books may lie just ahead.
Mr. Ochiai ended his 15th major league season in early October when his team, the Chunichi Dragons, faltered in a stretch run. A triple crown winner and .350 hitter in the mid-1980s, his average this year was a good but distinctly mortal .285, knocking his name off the top of the Japanese lifetime batting chart.
But in terms of the numbers that dominate the American game, the independent-minded Mr. Ochiai has emerged as Japanese baseball's most important player. He already is the highest paid player in Japan, with a reported 250 million yen (about $2.5 million) salary, but now he is widely expected to take the biggest swing of his professional career and become its first big-name free agent in decades.
Deregulation is currently in vogue in Japan and, like most really important social trends, its true character is best revealed as it applies to baseball.
About 60 of Japan's 336 major leaguers became eligible for free agency under the rules that went into effect yesterday. In theory, the players should be anxiously awaiting their chance to hear a new pitch.
Major league salaries average $300,000 -- not bad, but a fraction of what's paid in the United States. And unlike in the United States, the salary is an end, not a beginning. Ball clubs here either prohibit players from doing endorsements or take a cut off the top. A Japanese player hoping to do an underwear ad as Jim Palmer does would likely be stripped of his place on the team.
Even in the best of circumstances, though, there's little security. The contracts are all for just one year and as a result, after a bad year like the one the Chunichi Dragons had in 1992, all of the team players, including Mr. Ochiai, reportedly took a salary cut.
Conversely, because contracts are for one year, all the players should be legally free to move on now that free agency has arrived. But, as is often the case in Japan, the reality, particularly when the issue is vocational freedom, is more complex. Few players are expected to switch teams. Only four or five have any chance of being sought after and none can look forward to doubling his salary.
"Free agency was a joke and is still a joke," says Marty Kuehnert.
A player shifting teams will be able to receive only a maximum 50 percent raise and must serve 10 full years in the majors first -- or about two to three years longer than most players last in the majors, according to the Japan Professional Baseball Players' Association.
His new team will have to pay his former team compensation equal to the player's prior year's salary, as well as surrender another player. And each team is limited to a certain number of free agents that it may sign. The result:
"This won't be a flood. It will be a trickle," predicts Mr. Kuehnert.
That might be just fine as far as many Japanese fans are concerned. At a sports bar and restaurant that Mr. Kuehnert runs amid the many clubs in the Roppongi section of Tokyo, Satoshi Fuma, a liquor salesman, considers the baseball athlete's lot.
"Japanese players are underappreciated, but I don't want to see salaries going out of control like in the U.S. Someone has to pay for it. That's us," Mr. Fuma says. "And I don't want to see players moving around. Maybe it is OK in the United States; it is a moving society. But in Japan, we think if someone switches jobs a lot it is as if they switch wives a lot. They are unreliable."
He's not the only one. "For us, Japanese sports is to learn about teamwork, not to be outstanding," says Mami Niwa, a young Tokyo office worker stopping for a bowl of rice at a small diner on her way home from work. "Free agents may be outstanding, but an outstanding person is not so welcome here. We worry about the others on the team."
Even trades are unusual in Japanese baseball. The current (as the Japanese like to say) "North American Series" champions, the Toronto Blue Jays, were rebuilt between winning seasons. But Mr. Kuehnert reckons only 20 percent of the Japanese players ever shift teams.
"Why should baseball players be different than anyone else in the country?" says Mr. Kuehnert. "A revolution in this country can take 100 years."