Sayonara To The Swallows Of Winter?

The dusty desert town of Yuma, Ariz., is nearly 6,000 miles from Tokyo, but for the past two decades, the two cities have shared an intense love of baseball. These days, they're sharing something else--Japan's economic pain. Since 1978, this city of 66,000, which straddles the borders of Arizona and California near Mexico, has been the winter training home of the Yakult Swallows, Tokyo's No. 2 team and perennial underdogs in Japan's Central League. For a few weeks each year, the lithe, small-framed Japanese players have come here to limber up shoulders and batting swings in the dry heat, and trade tips with the American major league players who once worked out here. But economic hard times in Japan may mean the faithful Swallows have returned to Yuma for the last time.

It costs some $800,000 to fly 80 players, coaches, trainers, and interpreters across the Pacific, then house and feed them in Yuma for three weeks. Training in Japan is cheaper, and many Japanese believe the money should be spent at home. No official decision has been made, but in February at an outdoor banquet of tri-tip roast and Spam sushi, team officials exposed their thinking--albeit with exquisite Japanese subtlety. In a toast, Yuma Mayor Marilyn Young said she expected the squad to return for another 21 years, but General Manager Itaru Taguchi responded only that the Swallows would do their best to win this year.

Mayor Young has good reason to want the Swallows to come back. Along with fans and sports journalists, they pump $1 million into the local economy each year. And honoring the Japanese tradition of omiage, or gift-giving, the Swallows let Yuma keep the proceeds from the sole intrasquad game they stage. They also give $15,000 for the use of Desert Sun Stadium--which goes to Little League and other youth activities. "They're great," says Paul Franco III, a border patrolman who hangs out at practices and collects autographs. "They're polite, and don't brush you off like the American players do."

But Mayor Young has few incentives to offer. The $15,000 the Swallows pay to use the three diamonds, a stadium, and a spacious clubhouse is already a rock-bottom price. The team's costs for lodging and food, much of it rice, dried fish, pickles, and other veggies trucked in from Little Tokyo in Los Angeles, are already less than they'd be in Japan.

JET LAG. About half the team prefers to train in Yuma. Among the keenest are pitchers, most of whom dream of competing in the major leagues in the U.S., following the paths of Hideo Nomo, who broke into the majors with the Los Angeles Dodgers, and Hideki Irabu of the New York Yankees. Still, Japan has some advantages, including no jet lag, no language barrier, and no problems calling home. Best of all, evenings there are spent soaking sore muscles in the onsen, or hot springs bath.

Moreover, the Yuma camp no longer offers a chance for players to rub shoulders with American big leaguers, who now train elsewhere. "They're mesmerized by the big leagues," says pitcher Mark Acre, formerly with the Oakland Athletics and one of four non-Japanese who play for the Swallows. "They stay up at night to watch films of the 50 greatest home runs."

Sayonara to the Swallows of Winter?

A Swallows retreat from the mainland would mark the end of a tradition that began in 1953, a year after the U.S. ended its occupation of Japan, when the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants came to Santa Maria, Calif. The Chiba Lotte Marines abandoned training in Arizona last year. The Seibu Lions quit their camp in Maui in 1996.

Still, at the year's intrasquad game in Yuma, there is little sense that this may be the Swallows' swan song. After the Japanese national anthem, some 1,500 fans watch a 9-2 game. "Kudasai," Little Leaguers plead with the players as foul balls bounce against the stands. In elemental Japanese, that's "Give me, please."

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.