JapanBall’s Shane Barclay Spreads American Fans’ Love of Baseball Across Oceans
“I always ask what our guests think is the key to success to thrive in Japan and they often invoke things like being open and embracing the culture … that is what JapanBall is all about.” ー Shane Barclay
Shane Barclay loves everything about baseball. Being involved in a business that caters to clientele seeking to experience the joy of traveling somewhere and enjoying watching the sport in Japan, a baseball-crazed nation.
As president of JapanBall, which has organized baseball tours since 1999, Barclay, who took over as company executive in 2020, is working to raise the company's profile now and in the future.
While tours have been on hold for more than a year due to global travel restrictions during the pandemic, the California native and his team have revamped the JapanBall website and greatly increased the volume of information about Japanese baseball.
What's more, Japan Series-winning managers Trey Hillman (Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters) and Bobby Valentine (Chiba Lotte Marines) and many others have been high-profile guests on JapanBall's "Chatter Up! Zoom calls since 2020. (See the full archive of "Chatter Up!" archive on JapanBall's YouTube page.)
JAPAN Forward recently caught up with Barclay to learn more about his career and vision for JapanBall in a wide-ranging interview.
What are the key elements of your career path in sports and what drew you to pursue opportunities with JapanBall?
The first key element of my career path was the publishing of Michael Lewis’s Moneyball (W.W. Norton Company) in 2003. I read that as a high school junior, right around the time I was accepting that I was never going to be a professional baseball player. That showed me that MLB was now accepting “outsiders,” and that I could use my education to get a job in baseball.
Second was deciding to study abroad in the Dominican Republic while in college at [University of California] UC Berkeley. That was my first in-person exposure to the international game, and was instrumental in building up my qualifications to work in baseball after graduating.
Third was being lucky enough to have [longtime MLB front-office executive] Sandy Alderson as a teacher at Cal. I learned a lot from his coursework, but more importantly, he helped me figure out how to “get my foot in the door” in the baseball industry.
When I left Major League Baseball’s Office of the Commissioner (working in the International Baseball Operations department) to move back home to California, I tried to find something new that combined my favorite parts of the MLB job: event planning and baseball-related international travel.
I worked with former Mariners and Angels General Manager (GM) Bill Bavasi at MLB, and I recalled him talking about his brother Bob’s Japanese baseball travel business. I asked Bill to put me in touch with Bob so that I could pick his brain about the baseball travel industry, and Bob said that he’d be happy to teach me what he knows about baseball travel by having me help him out on a JapanBall tour.
That was 2018. I loved every bit of it ー the guests, the planning, and of course, the baseball ー and Bob asked me to lead two more tours after that. Turns out that Bob was looking to retire (he had just bought a boat, after all, with lofty sailing aspirations) and was grooming me to officially take over as owner/operator, which I did in January 2020.
How did your involvement in Major League Baseball prepare you to pursue other opportunities connected to the sport?
Working in International Baseball Operations further proved to me that baseball is truly a global game while instilling in me a deep understanding of the international baseball landscape. At MLB we worked with the power brokers in the traditional baseball countries of Asia and Latin America, but also the passionate individuals and organizations that cultivate the sport in non-traditional baseball countries. That network is essential to my current work in so many ways ー finding people that I know and trust on the ground in various countries, creating a unique tour itinerary, and gaining “insider” access and knowledge.
What specific tasks during your MLB tenure especially helped you gain industry-related experience to run your own baseball company?
The organizational and planning skills and strategies that I learned from putting on events like the World Baseball Classic, the All-Star Futures Game, and various international prospects showcases and events have been invaluable in my experience with JapanBall. The WBC is such a massive event with so many entities coming together from around the baseball world that, in working on that event, I learned as much about working with others as I did about event planning.
More practical were the prospect events ー things like assembling a team of teenage ballplayers from Puerto Rico and leading them on a tour of Florida to play against MLB rookie-level teams, or hosting the Canadian Junior National Team in the Dominican Republic to play against a team of the top prospects from around Latin America. Those types of events showed me the level of detail that is required to put on a smooth event, how to react when the unexpected inevitably arises, and how to create a “big league” experience.
JapanBall was an established company when you purchased it, so do you feel your vision for the company's future and past owner Bob Bavasi's vision are/were a bit different?
On Bob’s “farewell” tour in fall 2019, I told him and our guests that my main job in taking over was “to not mess up a good thing.” Bob and the hundreds of fans who joined him on his tours to Japan built a fantastic community over the course of 20 years, and that community still is the bedrock of JapanBall. I want to maintain that feeling of camaraderie that is a result of bringing people together who a.) love baseball and b.) are curious and adventurous enough to immerse themselves in Japanese baseball.
Two things come to mind in how Bob and I differ. First, I aim to cultivate that sense of community online as well as in person. Over the past 1½ years, we’ve done that through our “Chatter Up!” Zoom series, reinvigorating our Facebook page (including the creation of the JapanBall Community Facebook group), and opening Twitter and Instagram accounts. All of these are digital spaces for English-speaking fans of Japanese baseball to interact, or where English-speaking fans can learn about the Japanese version of baseball.
Second is that I want to greatly increase our tour offerings, both to Japan and other international destinations. Once things are rolling in the post-COVID world, I plan to offer six total Japan tours in the spring and fall, and tours to South Korea, the Dominican Republic, and even Europe. And that is just the start! There are countless other destinations that I’m interested in.
Some JapanBallers may think that Bob and I differ on our approach to the media side of things because I have been putting a lot of effort into the creation of a new website and becoming an online resource for all things Japanese baseball. However, that is just a continuation of what Bob sought to do from the onset.
When he founded JapanBall in 1999, he wanted it to be the leading English-language resource for news and information on Japanese baseball. The original JapanBall.com was one of the few places that English-speaking fans could find info on the subject, other than the media guide that was compiled and edited by the late, great Wayne Graczyk.
While Wayne’s efforts are the ones that should be championed in the annual creation of that guide, JapanBall published it for many years, which is something that Bob was very proud of. The guide was always an incredibly useful (and interesting) tool for fans and baseball professionals, but JapanBall’s website was rather stagnant for many years until I took over.
I have been trying to revive Bob’s original intent, making sure that fans can rely on us for useful and interesting information about Japanese baseball.
What are the key sections of the JapanBall website and how have you transformed the look and amount of info that is displayed?
The part of the new website that I’m most proud of is the Articles and Features section. We have a passionate and talented team of contributors who are consistently publishing stories that inform, entertain, and educate baseball fans. Whether you’re new to NPB or have been to all 12 ballparks, there is something there for you.
The Japanese Baseball section is foundational to our new site, too. We have historical profiles of all 12 NPB teams and ballparks so that anyone that is trying to familiarize themselves with the Japanese game can get the basics in a concise, digestible way.
I hope that curious fans see our site as a gateway to Japanese baseball, serving as the first step before diving deeper via NPB Reddit, watching NPB games in the wee hours of the morning, or committing to seeing a game in person.
Our online store is growing slowly, but steadily. Collectibles are important to baseball fans (myself included), and I’m working to curate a unique offering of Japanese baseball items, including apparel, trading cards, autographs, and other paraphernalia such as bobbleheads.
Before we launched the new website in February 2021, we had a website for news and information, and a separate website for our tours. I combined those two sites so that japanball.com would be a one-stop shop for all things Japanese baseball. Now, you can learn about our sign up for our tours in addition to getting your preferred Japanese baseball coverage, be it current NPB news and information, past “Chatter Up!” episode videos, historical profiles, or tracking the Japanese MLB players.
Do you see evidence based on analytics, word of mouth, etc. that the JapanBall website is becoming a growing destination for baseball fans around the world?
Yes, all of the above! Our network of JapanBallers is growing in all directions, including newsletter subscribers, website visitors, interested tour guests, and social media followers. I love to see the growing numbers, but what has been even more satisfying is seeing the enthusiasm and support from many of the pillars of the JapanBall community, including some of the “old-timers” who went on a tour or purchased the media guide in years past and have come back into the fold.
I know you've had numerous guests now on the “Chatter Up! Zoom calls. Can you highlight or summarize some of your favorite tales that some of them made?
The great thing about all of our “Chatter Up!” guests is that they have such a passion for Japanese baseball and they embrace an opportunity to gather online with a group of other English-speakers who share that passion.
We’ve had a number of American former NPB players and managers on, and for the most part, those guys don’t get to reminisce about the Japan days very often since they are surrounded by Americans.
A common theme with all of our guests is cultural acclimation and appreciation. I always ask what our guests think is the key to success to thrive in Japan as a foreigner and they often invoke things like being open and embracing the culture. I love to hear that, because that is what JapanBall is all about ー we believe in the global and unifying aspects of baseball.
A few highlights that come to mind:
- [Former Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles GM] Marty Kuehnert keeping a live lion cub in his apartment before it was unveiled as the mascot for the Taiheiyo Club Lions, where he was in charge of promotions,
- Sandy Alderson recounting seeing Billy Martin getting razzed in Japan as a third baseman for the Yankees when he was 10 years old … and then firing him as manager of the Oakland A’s 35 years later,
- [Agent] Don Nomura talking about how his Japanese and American sides can work for or against him in social and business settings, and how he has learned to embrace each side,
- [Author, filmmaker and historian] Kerry Yo Nakagawa’s episode is the only one that invoked tears in our guests and audience! He spoke about baseball’s role in the tumultuous Japanese American experience,
- Bobby V showing off his NPB championship ring,
- [Former Hanshin Tigers star] Craig Brazell explaining how his love of his Japan years led him to giving his son the middle name “Koshien,”
- Trey Hillman talking about what it feels like to be thrown in the air (doage), and
- [Current Miami Marlins GM] Kim Ng’s honorary membership in the Dodgers’ “ramen club” of Japanese employees.
How did the tours you participated on give you a better sense of the baseball landscape and the vast fan base domestically, but also how the overseas fans have embraced the sport?
An American fan who first learns of Japanese baseball knows so little about NPB. They may know the name of the team that their MLB team’s new Japanese player used to play on, but they don’t know where that team plays, the history of that team’s league, what the fans are like, etc. Until they intentionally learn more, American fans just know that there is pro baseball in Japan and that there are some good players that come over to MLB from time to time.
The tours give so much substance to the “idea” of Japanese baseball ー the difference between the Pacific League and Central League, how teams are geographically dispersed throughout Japan, the different ballparks and their fans, etc. It’s easy to maintain Japanese baseball as just an esoteric idea in your mind, but when you travel the country via shinkansen and go to the games, it becomes a proper, world-class sporting entity with as much or more intricacies and storylines as MLB or any other league.
Our community is full of non-Japanese fans who are all-in on the Japanese game. After seeing Japanese baseball, many of them follow NPB as much or more than MLB, despite the challenges such as time zone differences, difficulty watching games, and the language barrier.
A large portion of our tour guests come back multiple times, some as many as five or six or even 10-plus times. They will buy a TV package based on the availability of Japanese channels, scour eBay for opportunities to buy NPB apparel, and read any book or watch any film on Japanese baseball.
One really cool thing is that baseball is often the gateway into learning more about Japanese culture. Some JapanBallers have done things like take language classes, attend local Japanese festivals in the U.S., become dedicated sumo fans, and shop and eat at Japanese markets and restaurants due to their exposure to the culture via baseball.
Can you discuss some of the planned tours and goals for the next years, such as Dominican Republic, South Korea and Taiwan?
In 2022, I’d like to have the following tours:
- Japan spring: either Okinawa Spring Training or NPB Opening Week during cherry blossom season; possibly bring a youth team to train and play games, too.
- Europe summer: at least two of the following countries: Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Italy, and Germany.
- South Korea fall: we’ll attend 3-4 games in the greater Seoul metropolitan area right before Japan.
- Japan fall: Our annual tour. If you do the whole thing, you attend a game at all 12 NPB ballparks over the course of 2-3 weeks, but you can also join for smaller segments of the tour or do a Tokyo-only tour. It can be combined with South Korea, too.
- Dominican Republic fall/winter: attend Winter League games, tour MLB team academies, and be immersed in the Dominican baseball experience.
It is my hope that these offerings ー and the experience that guests have ー will make it be known to the baseball fan community that JapanBall is the go-to place for international baseball ー not just tours, but also news and information.
Did you have any general comments you'd like to make about JAPAN Forward's sports coverage and our new sports website, SportsLook?
There really isn’t much out there on Japanese sports in the English language, so JAPAN Forward is an essential resource for people like me ー English-speaking fans of Japanese sports. Any coverage would be appreciated, but that Ed Odeven provides professional-quality, on-the-ground reporting makes JAPAN Forward (and now SportsLook) a go-to online destination for me.
Find more about JapanBall on their website, here. Learn more about Shane Barclay through his essay, A Baseball Love Letter for Alex Weaver - JapanBall, which gives a revealing look at his lifelong involvement in baseball.
Author: Ed Odeven
Follow Ed on JAPAN Forward's [Japan Sports Notebook] here on Sundays, in [Odds and Evens] here during the week, and Twitter ＠ed_odeven.