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How Clubhouse Culture, Contract Structures and City Lifestyle is Changing MLB Free Agency

Baseball is considered America’s past time, however given the growing popularity of the game internationally it is now the World’s Sport and America’s biggest export. In 2023, MLB realized a spike in ticket sales coming out of the World Baseball Classic (WBC) and that enthusiasm continued with an electrifying 2023 Little League World Series. It had become clear that baseball was forming a vast global community full of young talent and transformational players.

In addition, MLB has been putting forth a concerted effort to be more inclusive with the continued celebration of Roberto Clemente Day to Jackie Robinson Day to the upcoming Rickwood Game and the Dodger’s Opening Day Game in South Korea in 2024. MLB will dedicate next season to amplifying the contributions of multicultural communities that have made significant impact and will continue to evolve the game. 

However, there is something else happening that is going under most team’s radars. International players are not only looking for top dollar but they are also looking for a cultural fit that includes, team make-up in terms of diversity, clubhouse chemistry and lifestyle living. Let me go into some more specifics. 

Let’s start with Contract Structure

The recent Shohei Ohtani free agency signing by the Los Angeles Dodgers was the tipping point on how baseball clubs will look to manufacture dynasties. The same way, Lebron James ushered in the concept of the Super Team in the NBA, Shohie just ushered in the same concept of the MLB Super Team by making it possible to sign his Japanese teammate Yoshinobu Yamamoto. The move not only solidifies the Dodgers as a perennial playoff team, but it also positions them as the new Evil Empire taking that mantel away from the George Steinbenner’s New York Yankees . The Boss had one rule of thumb, butts in seats, trophies in the glass case.

Is it no wonder that once Magic Johnson became part of the Dodger’s ownership group that he would employ the same NBA “Super Team” tactic? (Btw…lookout NFL, the same is coming to the Washington Commanders, mark my words) But, what is even more glaring is that even though Steve Cohen, (better known as Uncle Steve to Met diehards) the lone owner of the New York Mets, made the exact offer to Yamamoto, he chose the Dodgers instead. Now, why is that?  Well that brings me to the my next point, the importance of Culture & Lifestyle. 

Players are choosing familiar and comfortable environments as a Priority

During the 2023 season, myself, my partner Rafael Jimenez and the crew at EL SHOW visited the New York Mets clubhouse during the Subway Series. We were slated to do an interview with Met’s young catcher phenom, Francisco Alvarez to talk about his incredible debut into the big leagues as a rookie. As our crew setup the camera, mic, etc. we noticed Alvarez’s locker was right next to Kodai Senga and what we witness gave us some pause.

Senga, spent 11 seasons in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball organization, all for the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks. Overall, the right-hander posted a 2.59 ERA and 1.12 WHIP over 1,089 innings, striking out 28% of the batters he faced, but also walking 9%. In 2022, he had a 1.89 ERA and a 1.04 WHIP over 148 innings for the Hawks. 

Suffice to say, Senga’s signing was a big deal for the Mets in 2022, and at the time of our interview, Senga was the best pitcher in the starting rotation for the Mets after the unceremonious departures of both Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer.  However, what was striking to us as we prepared to interview Alvarez, was the fact that Kodai Senga was sitting all by himself with no one around him. No reporters, no teammates, with the exception of his interpreter. I could not help but notice the unhappiness in his face and negative body language. It almost felt like he did not want to be there. Flat out, he looked lonely and out of place.  

Why is this Significant?  

Well, players are human and like anyone else, and want to feel part of the greater community. Feeling comfortable, allows you to be more like yourself, which in turn may increase your confidence and level of play on the field. Familiarity can also help create a feeling of a home away from home. Couple that with what seemed to be a volatile Mets clubhouse in 2022, one can see a scenario where Senga may have advised Yamamoto to look else where. This is not a far fetched conclusion given that money was not an option (remember the Mets offered Yamamoto the exact same contract as the Dodgers) and the Japanese culture is one that is not selfish, even though Senga knew the addition of Yamamoto would make the Mets starting rotation formidable, he would not let Yamamoto walk into a clubhouse with chemistry issue. Misery does not like company in the Japanese value system. You would have to travel to Japan or befriend someone Japanese to truly understand what I mean.

So why is Lifestyle important?

Let’s face it, tinsel town offers a lot for a Japanese All Star, first the weather is fantastic pretty much year round with the exception of the summer where it can be unbearable. Secondly, it is home to Hollywood stars and lots of influential people which can make life fun and interesting for players. 

Third, LA has the best Japantown scene for sure, and last but not least, LA is close to Japan…pretty much as close as it gets from the United States. All these factors contributed to the Shohie/Yoshinobu reunion. They are friends, they played together, they speak the same language and they of course love Japanese culture. This really should have not come to such a surprise to anyone.

Case in point, team’s need to look at how they tailor or curate their Culture from the clubhouse to the executive suite to the coaching staff, scouting teams and player development. This overlooked aspect of free agency signings can be the difference between signing a historical player or becoming one of many. As for the Yankees, I am afraid the Blue and White New Era cap just took a step back. They are no longer the team young Japanese players aspire to play for. Yoshinobu Yamamoto was 8 years old the last time the Yankees won the World Series and Shohei Ohtani was 12. In 2009, Hideki Matsui was the World Series MVP and it marked the last time the Yankees won it all. 

Is this is a coincidence? I don’t think so. Team’s need to change with the times or be left behind.

Let’s Play Ball!

Words By Phil Colon

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