After hitting 32 home runs for the Expos last season, third baseman Tony Batista sat back and waited for the free-agent offers to roll in. They never did--until last week, when the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks of Japan's Pacific League, his only suitor, swept in with a two-year, $15 million offer, one of the most lucrative ever in Japanese baseball.
Batista is one of several established major leaguers to jump across the Pacific for big bucks this off-season. (The group includes Red Sox outfielder Gabe Kapler and Astros reliever Dan Miceli.) The signings come as the Japanese game tries to rebound from a disastrous 2004 season, which saw the continued exodus of top players to the U.S., alltime-low TV ratings and the league's first players' strike.
Japanese baseball has historically been dominated by a cabal of highly secretive owners, but in the strike settlement the league made it easier for others to buy in. The result: an influx of new blood, such as Internet giant Softbank. New Hawks owner Masayoshi Son says he believes Japanese players are underpaid and that money is no object in building his team. League officials hope that spirit will draw fans back to Japanese ballparks. Says Paul Cohen, Kapler's agent, "[Teams] want to show they're willing to go anywhere in the world for their fans."