Japan's thrilling 10-inning win a fitting final chapter to second WBC
Japan repeated as World Baseball Classic champs, beating Korea 5-3 in 10 innings
The Asians showcased a brand of play minus the staple of the U.S. game: the HR
Despite American's unwillingness to get onboard, the WBC showed it's growing
LOS ANGELES -- If you could hear yourself think at Dodger Stadium Monday -- and such an ordinary task became a downright challenge amid the 54,846 flag-waving, drum-beating, thunderstick-whacking, whistle-blowing, aisle-dancing zealots as Japan battled Korea in a final straight out of 1960s Americana -- what you understood was that the World Baseball Classic grew bigger and better in its second incarnation. An acquired taste for smug Americans, the party goes on in 2013 whether America wants to resist it or not, not unlike the soccer World Cup.
Once again, Team USA failed to reach the finals, leaving the international baseball stage to Japan and Korea, and underscoring the folly of the provincialists who call this great game "our game." It is no more "ours" than the automobile, fast food or basketball.
The Asian clubs provided a showcase of thrilling baseball without that staple of American baseball, the home run, the hydrogenated oil of American ball. Eighty-six batters came to the plate Monday. Not one hit the ball out of the park. Japan took 309 at-bats in the tournament and hit all of four home runs -- and still it is the champion, maybe even because of it. And still the baseball was superb.
Korea made a courageous comeback, down 3-1 with five outs of breath left, and then trailing 3-2 with one out remaining. But Bum Ho Lee drilled a game-tying single off Yu Darvish, the brilliant, hard-throwing pitcher who became the envy of every major league club during this tournament.
Japan absorbed the blow and stood firm, winning the game in the 10th, 5-3, while upholding that great baseball tradition, the second guess. Korean manager In Sik Kim, Korean for "Davey Johnson," chose to pitch to Ichiro Suzuki with two outs, two on and first base open in the 10th -- with a right-handed pitcher on the mound and a right-handed hitter on deck. Suzuki -- the guy who said after the 2006 WBC that Korea would not beat Japan for the next 30 years -- rapped a base hit through the middle of the diamond to send home two runs. It was his fourth hit of the night. Kim later blamed miscommunication and his inexperienced catcher, having preferred they "pitch around" Suzuki.
It was a fitting last chapter to the WBC sequel, the tournament having played out with more fans, more television viewers and more drama than the inaugural event.
Of course, Americans, at least those unable to think big, cannot embrace what is happening around the world. Yes, the WBC has its critics, but there are two distinguishing characteristics of the party poopers: they are overwhelmingly American and they overwhelmingly don't actually attend or watch the event. They preach from Barcalounger pulpits with their head turned away. You cannot watch these games and talk to these players and understand their emotions -- including the humbled Americans -- and think this is something not worthwhile.
Go ahead, you tell entire countries these games don't matter. Japan used an acting manager from its professional league to steward its WBC team; do you think the Red Sox would have loaned Terry Francona to Team USA during spring training? While Team USA couldn't be bothered flying in Grady Sizemore from Arizona to replace an injured player, Japan flew in a player from across the Pacific Ocean to replace one of their disabled players. And Japan closed its semifinal and final wins with Darvish, a stud starting pitcher, which would be the rough equivalent of Team USA using Jake Peavy as its closer.
Other countries stopped for the WBC the way America used to stop for the World Series. In Cuba, workers were allowed to show up late for their jobs the morning after late-night games in Mexico. In Korea, fans filled three different ballparks to watch the final on giant screens, with the people filing in as early as 9 a.m. for the 10:30 a.m. first pitch, local time. In Japan, people stood by the hundreds, five and six deep, around the display windows of electronics stores in Tokyo, catching WBC games of their beloved Samurai Japan on flat-screen display sets. When Japan played Korea in the first of their five games this WBC, it drew a 37.8 rating in Japan, better than the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the highest recorded sports event there since ... well, since the last WBC.
The interest was not confined to the Pacific Rim. The 39 WBC games drew an average of 20,549 fans per game -- making the WBC, on average, a better draw than three major league franchises: the Royals, Pirates and Marlins. The WBC drew seven crowds in excess of 40,000 -- more than the Marlins, Nationals, Royals, Indians, White Sox and Athletics combined in 486 games last year.
ESPN ratings for the WBC shot up 53 percent entering the final round. Fifty-six corporations signed on as WBC sponsors, more than double the involvement in 2006.
"This is doing exactly what we set out to do," baseball commissioner Bud Selig said.
What he means is that baseball is becoming a truly international sport, whether America wants to accept it or not. He also means Major League Baseball, having saturated its American market, is growing new pools of consumers around the world. The mother lode to all this, of course, is China. If the WBC is a vehicle to spur the Chinese to get serious about baseball -- and its nature, given Olympic sports precedents, is to compete at a high level, not just be involved -- then baseball will tap into a consumer market of more than one billion people.
"Long after I'm gone," Selig said, "this event will be huge."
Is it perfect? Of course not. The new and improved WBC still needs tweaking. The tickets were horribly overpriced. There were too many days off. More Major League stars need to sign on. More Major League general managers and owners need to throw their support behind it. Those developments may still be coming. After all, Uruguay won the first soccer World Cup, an event with only 13 teams -- fewer than the first WBC -- including only four teams from soccer-mad Europe.
The WBC, after all, cannot be judged as an American event, which is why it is important to bring the World Baseball Classic to international audiences. The tournament opened this year in four countries, none of them being the continental United States. That should be a WBC tradition. Perhaps even Europe can host a pool, or even a "play-in" round.
"I do love the idea of starting all over the world," Selig said.
Thereafter, however, maybe you don't need to switch venues two more times. After Round 1, simply bring the Elite Eight to Southern California for a double-elimination format, College World Series style. Make Southern California the WBC's Omaha. The games can be played at Angels Stadium in Anaheim and Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. Such a schedule would rid the tournament of those hideous off days and meaningless seeding games and give it real daily momentum. You also would get a wider variety of matchups, instead of getting Japan and Korea playing five times. The tournament this year took 18 days from start to finish. The WBC can knock out about four or five days from that schedule.
The biggest problem with the WBC is an American problem: the U.S. team is not fully committed to winning, not in its administration, not in the support of the Major League clubs, not in the expectations of its fans, and not in how the games are managed. The talent gap between the U.S. and the rest of the world has shrunk, as it has in basketball, so that the Americans cannot get by on talent alone.
Maybe 2013, on the heels of a 7-7 overall record in the WBC, will bring about more urgency from the Americans. Maybe nothing changes with the U.S.'s commitment. It is a sign of baseball's international growth, however, that whatever course the Americans take will not make or break this tournament. It belongs to the world. Game on. Party on.
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