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Monday, September 6, 2004
Union unhappy about looming team merger

Associated Press

TOKYO -- Japan's professional players will strike for the first time if owners proceed with a proposed merger of two teams, the players' union said Monday.

The players decided at a meeting that if the merger between the Pacific League's Orix BlueWave and Kintetsu Buffaloes is not suspended, they will refuse to play, said Yakult Swallows catcher Atsuya Furuta, who heads the players' association. The players will meet with team officials this week to try to reach a last-minute deal, he added.

In a preliminary vote that raises the likelihood of the Orix-Kintetsu merger, representatives of the 12 professional baseball teams endorsed the deal Monday at a meeting called by the commissioner's office, Central League President Hajime Toyokura said.

"If the players strike, we are considering suing the players to seek compensation for damages," Toyokura said.

The owners are widely expected to give final approval to the merger Wednesday, which could lead to up to 100 players and team personnel losing jobs. It also could spur more mergers, reducing the two Central and Pacific leagues of six teams each to one 10-team league.

The players have said three conditions, including a one-year freeze on the proposed merger, must be met by Friday. If not, they will refuse to play all weekend games for the rest of the month, public broadcaster NHK said.

Earlier Monday, a Japanese high court upheld a district court ruling allowing the merger to proceed, rejecting an appeal by the players.

A strike would come 10 years after the one by major league players in 1994. A strike could affect the playoffs and Japan Series championships in October and possibly a major league all-star tour of Japan in November.

Many owners in the less profitable Pacific League are said to favor a single league to cash in on the higher revenues from the Central League's Yomiuri Giants. The Giants have long been Japan's most popular team and draw large crowds throughout Japan.

A merger is opposed by many fans, and critics argue there are less drastic measures -- interleague play and more equitable distribution of TV broadcast rights.

Tsuneo Watanabe, the Yomiuri Giants' former owner who still wields great influence, has proposed moving the Giants to the Pacific League. He suggested such a step would maintain balance if the Pacific League were reduced because of a merger.