The Internationalist Spring 2019
Jimmy Rosenberg's official job title is senior coordinator of international consumer products for Major League Baseball, perfect for someone so immersed in the cultures of the U.S., Japan, and, of course, baseball. It's a complex job, but so is the sophisticated structure in which he works. A long-time Japan resident, baseball fan, and Nishimachi International School alumnus, Jimmy was able to leverage his considerable language skills and third-culture experience to direct his career path. I asked him if working at Major League Baseball sometimes makes him feel like a kid in a candy shop.
"Definitely. I have to remind myself that this is actually work!"
Charming and personable, Jimmy radiates enthusiasm for his work. He spoke to me via video call from Major League Baseball offices in New York City, the backdrop filled with colorful team jerseys and caps. I had to catch him on the fly, as he wasn't due in Japan until March, when the Seattle Mariners and Oakland Athletics open their season at Tokyo Dome.
Jimmy's family has been in Japan for many years, and you can find his big sister, Kacie, upstairs in Matsukata House as Marketing and Communications manager. Jimmy's family has been in Japan for many years, and you can find his big sister, Kacie, upstairs in Matsukata House as part of the Nishimachi International School Development team. Home for Jimmy is rooted in family, wherever they are. He credits his dad, Jerry, for teaching him everything about baseball. They're from Cleveland, Ohio, where Jimmy was born, and all big Cleveland Indians fans, and it has to be live: sitting in the bleachers with friends and family, the crack of the bat and the roar of the crowd!
Does he remember his first live game? "...It had to have been in Cleveland. My aunt had season's tickets so in the summer she would always take me." When Cleveland made it to the World Series in 2016, Jimmy was pleased to be able to return the favor, taking his aunt to the games. "It was an emotional thing, to be able to give her tickets this time.... My dad flew in from Japan, and we went to all seven games. It was an amazing experience, even though they [the Indians] lost -but the Cubs won for the first time in 107 years!"
What exactly does work entail for Jimmy? It boils down to this: if it has an MLB logo on it and is produced for or used in events in Asia, then it falls into his department.
"You have everything on-field, and then you have all types of fashion products as well as smaller items: hard goods and soft goods," he explains. He works with worldwide and in-country licensees and concessionaires who produce and sell merchandise, ensuring that the brand is well represented according to MLB guidelines. Major League Baseball has undergone significant organizational changes over the past few years, and Jimmy has been part of the merge of the international and domestic consumer goods departments. He says things are falling into place, but there are, indeed, a lot of moving pieces to his job.
The jerseys and caps on the wall behind him provide just a peek at the wealth of items he is responsible for, and MLB is widening the field of target demographics. For die-hard fans, team apparel is akin to a religious experience. Ask anyone who has a fan in their family. In 2017, 50% of Major League Baseball fans were over the age of 55. I asked how MLB attracts younger fans and women.
"On the apparel side it's branding, so you want to make it cool. You want to try to get more people involved in baseball at a younger age, to get more people to wear your product, to become fans of a team." It's about connecting the consumer with the brand. Caps, jerseys, jackets, and T-shirts are part of the "soft" consumer product line. "Hard" goods in Jimmy's domain run the gamut from collector cards and keyrings, travel mugs and tchotchkes, to everything you can think of in between—all sporting the MLB logo in Asia.
If you've ever been to a game at Tokyo Dome, there's the MLB Café, loaded with memorabilia and even Kitty-chan wearing the red and white Los Angeles Angels' uniform. "They see Otani playing, and they want all Angels stuff, so it really helps to have a Japanese superstar like that," adds Jimmy. Japan's love of baseball runs deep, creating a ready market for souvenir, equipment, and fashion merchandise. Jimmy stays apace of the unique nature and constant shifts in consumer consumption habits in Asia.
"For instance, we have a huge partner in Korea, but it's seen as more of a fashion brand than a sports brand, in China, too. It's continuing to expand throughout Asia as everyone loves their [Korea's] style." Top K-Pop performers front the label, and an MLB Korea shop opened in Hong Kong.
Counterfeiters love it, too, which creates major headaches for marketing and branding. I took a quick detour in the conversation here to ask Jimmy if it was a problem in Asia. "Yes, it's a big part of the job.... We call it 'whack-a-mole', because you shut down one company and ten more come up! We have our own legal department, and within the legal department we have a counterfeit team." This team works with customs agents around the world, and huge seizures are common in Asia. With increasing online sales, counterfeiters have more cash to spend on better technology for copying the merchandise, he explains. MLB takes a number of quality control steps to ensure that a product is genuine. "Every authentic product has a hologram with a number on it, but fakes are harder to spot these days.... You have to educate the consumer and make it less attractive," he notes. Pop culture icons in the U.S. have made the New York Yankees' caps top sellers, and a recent fad for keeping the hologram sticker on a cap advertises a fan's ability to purchase an authentic product.
Circling back to on-field products, it's also Jimmy's business to order and ship the apparel and equipment a team needs to play in Asia. He thrives on keeping the moving pieces together to make it all happen. "I love the events—being able to travel, working with players. I do a lot of the operations on the equipment side, making sure everyone gets their uniforms, enough baseballs, bats, bases; everything to organize the game." The equipment and uniforms ride on the charter flights to the destination with the players. "Teams purchase a lot of product, so going to the games is a big part of it, a lot of hands-on stuff. I like the planning and then actually being able to execute it. You get to see your work when you see the game. I can say 'I was part of this.'"
And his biggest fandom moments? "I got to work with Matsui this past November; he was a coach for the MLB All-Star team.... That was a big one. I saw Mark McGuire once; he was a Dodgers' coach at the time. I also got to see Omar Visquel at an All-Stars game. It's really about seeing the players who I watched as a kid."
Raised in Japan, Jimmy returned to the U.S. for holidays (and Indians' baseball games) and then university. He attended local Japanese public school until fourth grade, Nishimachi International School through eighth grade, and then high school at the American School in Japan. He graduated from the University of Miami of Ohio with a Bachelor of Science in Marketing with minors in Japanese language and International Business. Attending a state school, he met students who were born and raised in Ohio, some never venturing further than their hometown. He found that people were either fascinated or confused by him, which gave him a new perspective on "being from Ohio" and on being a third-culture kid. I posed the usual question about his response when asked where he's from.
"Ha!" he laughed. "So it's changed over the years. I guess that's the story of growing up in Japan, thinking I was American. Then I went to college in Ohio, and I found out that I wasn't really from Cleveland.... I went from living in Tokyo to living in the middle of nowhere Ohio." On reflection, though, he feels it was a bonus to have gone to such a generally homogeneous university in a quintessential U.S. college town. "I don't think I would have appreciated growing up in Tokyo as much if I hadn't had that experience.... Even though I was culturally Japanese, the international kid in me lived in a bubble and thought that this is what life really was."
Jimmy reflects that it was difficult going from being "the foreigner" at a Japanese school to an international student. He fondly remembers his grade 4 teacher, Ms. Flippo, at Nishimachi International School, who helped him make the transition. "She spent the time to help me and that's something I always cherished. I was surprised by how much work there was and learning on my own; ...critical thinking and having opinions, which I wasn't used to! But it was such a tight-knit group.... We lived further out, so I spent a lot of time at school."
Sports, Kazuno, and school trips stand out as highlights for Jimmy. He is effusive about the lasting friendships and community bonds created at Nishimachi. "I was a big skier, and the ski trips were unbelievable!" He remembers going on the "Mr. Green ski trips" with his family from about the age of four.
Jimmy continued playing hockey with a local Japanese team, though, until grade 10. "I played a lot (of hockey) in college. Miami of Ohio used to have a good hockey program, ranked almost number one the whole time I went there. I had stopped in high school, though, because I was already playing three sports." Jimmy added varsity baseball, football, and basketball in eleventh and twelfth grades.
He enjoyed being a teenager in Tokyo, a unique experience in a huge metropolis. The best part? "Safety and freedom. And the safety thing I only realize now. It's unbelievable how safe it is. And being able to go anywhere without a car."
After life in Tokyo, being isolated in the Midwest wasn't his first choice for university he admits. Miami of Ohio is located about an hour out of Cincinnati. "It's like you're trying to find the lost city, and you're driving forever through the corn fields and then suddenly this town pops up!" It turned out to be the best decision for him, though. He consistently made the dean's list at the university's highly competitive Farmer School of Business. University was another new transition and a journey of self-discovery, but he found that aside from being able to play hockey again, he enjoyed his classes. In business school he had his eureka moment, realizing that business was what he wanted to pursue.
"I had an amazing educational experience throughout university. They have a fabulous business school there, with a huge consumer products program." P&G is based in Cincinnati and works closely with Miami of Ohio, attracting other companies to do the same, benefitting from a ready pool of creative minds and potential future employees. He described how businesses propose projects for the class to work on, and students research and develop solutions, generating their own data, using a variety of technologies, designing creative branding and advertising, and defending their results. These opportunities to work on real-world assignments were Jimmy's favorite part of the program, and he found his niche with leadership roles in the group projects. He completed several projects with P&G, including his senior capstone project and, earned a scholarship from the retailer Target after his work on one of their rebranding initiatives.
"Being able to present your findings: I thought it was extremely important that we had so many chances to present,... and being able to talk to someone in the business world, not just your peers." Developing his presentation skills and the experience gained from interacting with business leaders helped him clinch internships and job interviews later. Being able to do all this in Japanese as well is at the core of Jimmy's everyday work. "I would say that 40% of my communication now is in Japanese." (He admits that being able to select the correct kanji from a keyboard makes that much easier!) "I wanted to take more classes and focus on an international business minor. Well, for that, you need to take a language.... I tried to pass out of Japanese, but they wouldn't let me, and I had to start from the beginning to get the credits! I ended up being a sort of assistant, tutoring other students, but also took culture and linguistics courses."
High school students are faced with a bewildering array of choices at university. How would someone who was interested in the sports industry know what to take? "You don't know, that's the thing. That's why it was nice for me, taking all kinds of courses the first two years." He recommends a wide range of subjects, finding a program that offers choice and the opportunity to specialize later, and emphasized getting real-life experience while you're studying. In his first and second years, Jimmy needed top grades for admission into business school his junior (third) year. He took subjects like economics, finance, business law, and accounting: critical to choosing his major. He focused on marketing, which opens up a number of opportunities for graduates. Classmates went into jobs in advertising and sales, and to marketing divisions within large corporations.
Summer internships offered stepping stones to Jimmy's current job. "Those were probably the most important things," he asserts. His college grades, language skills, networks, and connections in the Tokyo community helped him capitalize on opportunities. His first internship with MLB in Tokyo gave him an introduction into the industry. A stint with Allergen pharmaceuticals and then SAP (business and financial software) gave him experience with marketing and international businesses in Japan. "SAP is a big international company but localized in Japan. I use SAP software now at MLB to collect consumer resource data.... I also learned that I didn't want to work in a Japanese company right away!" The opportunity to work in baseball was a pivotal career move. "That's the nice thing about working in sports. Once you have your foot in the door you meet so many people, so you're connected to everything, different leagues... different companies."
I encouraged him to give me his one-minute elevator pitch for anyone keen to work in sports. 'I'd definitely say that first things first; you can't really create a job, but if there's a job opening, go for it. And no matter what it is, do it... even if it's not the first thing you want to do, you're going to be able to find something for you, and the hardest part is getting that first job."
Jimmy's first job after graduation was in Tokyo with World Baseball Classic, a tournament which allows professional baseball players to play for their national team outside of the regular baseball season. "World Baseball Classic is basically... the World Cup of baseball, an international event that happens in March every four years. In 2013 I was the coordinator for the Japanese national team." Preparation met opportunity and working for Major League Baseball now lets him spin his passion and his expertise into a career in New York.
Jimmy's been with MLB for five years now. What does he envision for the next five? "That's a great question. I think that's definitely something I'm thinking hard about now. The organization in general is changing.... I'm just waiting to see what settles. I love what I'm doing." And does that include living in the Big Apple?
"It's interesting. In the beginning I kept comparing it to Tokyo, but it's not Tokyo; it doesn't work like Tokyo at all, which makes you appreciate Tokyo that much more. There's so many opportunities here, so many things to do, but it's expensive!... The pace? I mean a hundred miles a minute!... You've got to be faster than everyone else to keep up." Jimmy was surprised to find many Tokyo friends also living and working in New York. Yet, despite it all, he's looking forward to his upcoming visit home, where food is high on his priority list.
'I'm a big ramen guy, but it's too expensive in New York. I have to eat sushi. I always go to Fukuzushi in Roppongi for their weekday lunch special." We exchanged tonkatsu recommendations, then moved on, of course, to conbinis* - the life-blood of the Tokyo teen. He is still just as exuberant about this get-it-and-go, calorie-infused necessity. "Oh, yes! I love the American dogs and the pizza-man [buns filled with pizza toppings]. I love the potato chip section and all the flavors." Pocky or Pretz? "Well, that depends on the time of day - both!"
Jimmy has found success in other ballparks, but his home team is always in Tokyo.