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Better than advertised

World Baseball Classic has been unqualified success

Posted: Tuesday March 14, 2006 11:55AM; Updated: Tuesday March 14, 2006 1:02PM
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Japan's Tsuyoshi Nishioka slides into second base safely as Derek Jeter waits for the throw.
Japan's Tsuyoshi Nishioka slides into second base safely as Derek Jeter waits for the throw.
Robert Beck/SI

Right about now that mysterious, spelling-challenged Yankees employee who took a gratuitous shot at the World Baseball Classic with that don't-blame-us sign at Legends Field in Tampa needs a spell checker, a clue and an apology, not necessarily in that order. Where are the WBC naysayers now, hoping some major leaguer blows out a knee or rotator cuff just for an "I told you so" (though spring training camps are full of the usual injuries this year)?

Only a baseball grinch or a Yankees executive couldn't love the WBC now that it has unfolded in all its flag-waving, goose-bump-raising, alert-the-embassy glory. Those of you who still prefer the alternative -- say, a split-squad Royals-Rangers game stocked with players wearing the numbers of offensive linemen and some No. 5 starter blabbering, "I got my work in" -- should also know about this new thing called the Internet, in which you can get news any time rather than waiting for Walter Cronkite to come on the console television.

What baseball has done with the WBC is hit the bull's-eye in its aim to grow the game internationally. And once enough provincial Americans, the last ones to get on the bus, come around to the idea that this isn't just about television ratings -- the be-all arbiter of importance in our society -- the WBC will grow exponentially. You'll know it's arrived when America gives it the ultimate compliment: the office pool. Nothing says "sports hit" in this country quite like gambling.

In the first week of games, an 18-year-old threw a no-hitter; the United States has been on the brink of being knocked out of the tournament twice; prideful Japan classified a loss to Korea as a shame and one to the U.S. as a pity; Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan, stocked with both passion and two kinds of whiskey at the concession stands, was a drum-banging Caribbean festival; the Mexican game outdrew the U.S. game Sunday in Anaheim by 10,000 people; Seung-Yeop Lee of Korea, who is known as the Lion King, slugged 1.353; and anti-Castro fans and an American umpire each created international incidents 3,000 miles apart.

It's been fascinating to see that the world isn't so small that baseball has been homogenized. Quite the contrary: Each country has brought its own spin on how to play the game. The Cubans, for instance, play with a flamboyant machismo that major leaguers interpret as showboating, full of outsized gestures and emotion.

The Japanese are the idiosyncratic stylemasters, a nation of players Charlie Finley would love, with their white shoes, dyed hair, funky necklaces, garish sunglasses, silver-and-copper-colored gloves and -- I'm not making this up -- practice bats that look like four-color, ringed croquet mallets. They also take infield practice with every position player on the roster before games (some major leaguers have forgotten what taking infield actually is), take practice grounders during pitching changes and practice infield pop-ups during batting practice, a seemingly dangerous routine in the event a line drive is smoked the way of a fielder looking skyward at a pop-up.

Moreover, every position player on the Japanese team throws right-handed, but seven of their nine hitters on Sunday batted left-handed -- the right-handed thrower/left-handed batter combination being the sport's ideal.