MLB Could Open 2025 Season in Japan; NPB Approves Minor League Expansion

Fans cheer during game between Saitama Seibu Lions and Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters at ES CON Field Hokkaido on March 14, 2023 in Kitahiroshima, Hokkaido, Japan. ES CON Field is a possible location for an MLB Opening Day Series in Japan for the 2025 season. (Photo by The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images)

By Julian Guilarte
World Baseball Network

The sun could rise on the 2025 Major League Baseball season in the Land of the Rising Sun.

The commissioner of Nippon Professional Baseball, Sadayuki Sakakibara, met with MLB commissioner Rob Manfred to discuss a potential season-opening series in Japan in 2025, Yahoo Japan News reported on September 29.

The meeting between the two commissioners took place in the United States in early September. This MLB opening day series would take place in March of 2025, and it could be played in the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters’ new stadium, ES CON Field Hokkaido, which holds 35,000 people.

The Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters play in the NPB and have been established since 1946. The Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters have won three championships in 1962, 2006 and 2016.

Sadayuki Sakakibara, 79, signed a two-year contract to become the 15th NPB commissioner on December 5, 2022. Sakakibara previously served as the chairman at Toray Industries and Kansai Electric Power Company. He also led the largest business lobby in Japan at Keidanren from 2014 to 2018. Sakaakibara talked about becoming the NPB commissioner in a letter to World Baseball Softball Confederation President Riccardo Fraccari. 

“I would like to dedicate my best effort to further spreading the charm of baseball and softball for the people around the world, especially in Asia and the Pacific region,” Sakakibara said in the letter. 

Major League Baseball proposed the date for opening day to be March 19 or 20. Japan would also like to have an exhibition game against a team from the United States, which they proposed for March 17 or 18. None of these dates are set in stone, and the MLB teams that would visit Japan are still undetermined. 

Japan has hosted five MLB regular season series at the Tokyo Dome, which is home to the Yomiuri Giants, who have won a record 22 NPB championships. The Tokyo Dome opened in 1988 and has a capacity of 45,600 people. 

The first MLB series in the Tokyo Dome was played in 2000 between the Chicago Cubs and Colorado Rockies from March 29-30. The most recent series was played in 2019 on March 20-21 between the Oakland Athletics and Seattle Mariners, a series that included the final professional appearance for Japanese legend Ichiro Suzuki.

Sakakibara also mentioned that the new MLB rules such as the pitch clock will be implemented in the 2025 MLB opening game, and all international competitions in Japan. The NPB will consider adapting to the new MLB rules for future seasons. The NPB is also looking to upgrade its footage to MLB standards by finding a way to verify replays in one place. 

NBP Expansion 

The Nippon Professional Baseball minor leagues expanded for the first time in 65 years after applications from Hayate 223 and Albirex BC were accepted at an NPB owners meeting, Yahoo Japan News reported on September 29. 

Hayate 223 will be based in Shizuoka City and will play in the Western League, which will now have six teams. Albirex BC will be based out of Niigata City and will play in the Eastern League, which will now have eight teams. The NPB Farm League went from 12 teams to 14 after adding both teams.

Yahoo News also reported that the purpose of the expansion was to spread the 12 teams out of their home bases and to develop and promote baseball within Japan. 

“I have high hopes that the base of baseball will expand and the region will develop as a result,” Takashi Goto, the president of Seibu Holdings, said.

The chairman of the Shizuoka Prefectural Baseball Federation, Ken Morimura, was very receptive to the expansion for Shizuoka City.

“This is a great blessing for the local baseball world. It will help promote and develop the baseball world in Shizuoka Prefecture. It’s great to be able to see it,” Morimura told Yahoo Japan.  

According to NHK News on September 29, players that have previously played on the 12 original NPB teams will be eligible to join the two expansion teams this upcoming season. Players that haven’t been nominated to the NPB draft meeting and foreign players can also join the expansion teams. 

Minor league players from NPB will also soon play in the Miyazaki Phoenix League, a fall baseball league organized by NPB. The 20th anniversary season begins on Monday, October 9, and ends on Sunday, October 30. All 12 NPB farm league teams will participate.

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