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Japan baseball team chases back-office stars for field of dreams

Old club of Darvish and Ohtani will open flashy stadium complex in Hokkaido

A promotional image for the Nippon Ham Fighters' tentatively named Hokkaido Ballpark.  (Photo courtesy of Nippon Ham Fighters)

SAPPORO -- Last week, when Japan's baseball team the Nippon Ham Fighters announced they will be hiring a handful of staff to work at their new ballpark to open in 2023, some 1,500 people from across the land applied in the first five days.

The aspiring candidates were intrigued by the passionate pitch by the Hokkaido-based team, which pulled out all the stops to convince experienced talent to relocate to Japan's northernmost island.

Among the selling points that the team listed in its 55-page PowerPoint presentation was that Hokkaido asparagus is four times thicker than what's sold in Tokyo, that the prefecture has the country's largest number of hot springs and -- wait for it -- that the cold keeps the cockroaches away. Hokkaido is too cold for cockroaches, it says.

Those selling points were not necessarily targeted at the candidates themselves but rather at family members that might be reluctant to move to the snowy north. 

The recruiting website that the team set up features a flashy promotional video for Hokkaido Ballpark before even getting to the job information.

The project, inspired by American stadiums, is the result of the Fighters running up against the limits of their shared home arena when it comes to the fan experience. Since moving to Sapporo from Tokyo in 2004, the team has played at the city-owned Sapporo Dome, along with local soccer team Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo.

Los Angeles Angels' Shohei Ohtani started his professional career with Japan's Nippon Ham Fighters.   © AP

Now the Fighters are building a home of their own in nearby Kitahiroshima. In a sign of their ambitions, American firm HKS, which is handling the design and construction of the Texas Rangers' new stadium, has been tapped for the project, in partnership with Japanese contractor Obayashi.

The recruiting site offers what it calls a "support tool" for a "harmonious" career change: a customizable PowerPoint presentation for applicants to use to convince their families to pull up stakes and move to Hokkaido.

"Thank you all for coming at such a busy time," the first slide reads, in language that would not be out of place in the corridors of corporate Japan.

The presentation goes on to outline a grand vision for the ballpark project as a "completely new live entertainment space" unlike any other in Japanese baseball. The stadium itself is to feature such amenities as gourmet food and a seating area in a hot spring.

But the team also envisions an entire complex containing hotels, restaurants, on-site residences and even activities like "glamping," or luxury camping.

Employees, the presentation says, will have the opportunity to not only make this vision come to life, but also to become a "rare talent" that can thrive in an uncertain world amid "the age of 100-year life spans, the advent of artificial intelligence and the collapse of the lifetime employment system."

The presentation talks up the sports industry's growth prospects, complete with a supporting chart, and the selectivity of a field many consider a "dream job." It touts a "freewheeling organizational culture that encourages people to take on new challenges," which it credits with the cultivation of superstars like Yu Darvish and Shohei Ohtani.

It then proceeds to outline some of the "many charms" of living in Hokkaido, an area shunned by many as too cold for comfort.

The prefecture was rated as the most appealing area to live in Japan for 10 years running, it says. Rents are reasonable, and typhoons wear themselves out before reaching the island. The team also helps pay for heat to get through the frigid northern winters.

"Conclusion: Transferring to the Fighters can lead our family to happiness," one of the last slides reads.

Switching companies midcareer is a big thing for the Japanese, who have traditionally stayed at one company for most of their careers. 

The Fighters have a reputation for unconventional thinking, and their penchant for the presentation software PowerPoint is well known to Japanese baseball fans.

In 2012, the team drafted Ohtani, who had vowed to go to the U.S. major leagues right out of high school, and crafted a presentation to persuade him to stay.

The 26-page PowerPoint, titled "Guidepost to Dreams," analyzed the careers of foreign athletes who had succeeded internationally. It found that baseball players entering the U.S. straight out of high school had to toil in lower leagues for several seasons, whereas staying in Japan would let Ohtani go right to the majors to hone his skills, which would be better for his long-term development.

The argument appears to have worked. Ohtani stayed with the Fighters before signing with the Los Angeles Angels after the 2017 season.

Brittany Hadden in New York contributed to this report.

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