Ni-Gun Baseball

» 25 August 2009 » In amateur baseball, international baseball, npb »

We mentioned on twitter that Yu Darvish will have his turn in the rotation skipped to work on his form in Nippon Ham’s ni-gun practice facility, so in this post I will address how the ni-gun is structured in Japanese baseball. In the NPB, there is no Triple-A, Double-A, or Single-A; there is the ni-gun, meaning “second troop”. The top level, major league-equivalent teams are known as ichi-gun or “first troop”.

Two leagues exist in the NPB minor league system: the Eastern and the Western Leagues. The statistics and schedule are available in Japan here. Here are some details of the two leagues:

The Eastern League (Operated by the Central League)

  • Composed of seven ni-gun teams: the Lotte Marines, BayStars, Giants, Fighters, Swallows, Lions and the Golden Eagles
  • The league started in 1955 as the “Shin Nippon League” with the concept of NPB teams developing their young players
  • The league was not able to continue due to financial reasons, but started back up again in 1961 with five teams, and added the Lions in 1979 and the Golden Eagles in 2005

The Western League (Operated by the Pacific League)

  • Five ni-gun teams: the Dragons, Tigers, Buffaloes, Carp, and the Hawks
  • The league was founded in 1952 as the “Kansai Farm League” with seven teams not affiliated with the NPB
  • With teams leaving for the “Shin Nippon League,” the Western League turned to the NPB and reorganized as a minor league system for the then-14 teams in the NPB and seven teams would be part of the Western League
  • The Western League lost the Lions due to the NPB team moving to Saitama and the merger of Buffaloes and Blue Wave led to the league contracting to five teams from 2005

With both leagues operating with an odd number of teams, the team with no game scheduled often plays against amateur industrial league teams belonging to the JABA (Japanese Amateur Baseball Association). Although the existence of these ni-gun teams are similar to minor leagues from a player development standpoint, the business behind the operations of these teams is completely different from the world of US minor league baseball.

Even though Minor League Baseball teams here in the States are affiliated with a MLB team they operate business as independent organizations. Minor League ball clubs has their own websites, stadiums, and in most cases their hometowns. However, the ni-gun differs in many ways compared to the operations of a minor league team as they usually do not operate independently and are run as more of a practice and development facility for the NPB teams. The only team name differing from its affiliated ball club is the Shonan Shirex and they don’t even have their own website.¬† A scene of announcing the starting lineup at the ballpark can be seen here and it is quite a bit different from an atmosphere you may be able to experience at a minor league game. Even though the Nippon Ham Fighters’ ni-gun team, playing at Kamagaya Stadium, is attempting to operate like a minor league ball club with promotions and events in a “Minor League” style, those types of ni-gun teams are still rare.

With only twelve teams at the professional level in NPB, there are few opportunities for players to make a living by just playing baseball. Teams are making efforts to provide playing time for young players like the Chiba Lotte Marines and the Yomiuri Giants working together forming a new team called Sirius for ikusei players and younger players to get game experience. However, with teams being limited in their roster spots and the future looking certain that there will not be a new team joining NPB anytime soon, independent leagues and ni-gun teams operating independently is one possible area of growth for professional baseball in Japan. If the number of professional teams increases in Japan outside of NPB, more players will have the opportunity to play at a higher level and the game will grow popularity around the country. Will the new development of independent leagues impact the state of professional baseball in Japan, and will ni-gun baseball begin evolving into a business of its own?

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