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The World Baseball Classic started slowly in Tokyo, then a Korean squad with something to prove upset the home team
If there were lessons learned in the first World Baseball Classic's first round-robin series, held in Tokyo last weekend, one had to do with the weather--more specifically the difficulty of enticing fans to turn out for games in the cold and rain of early March, even when those games are played indoors. Only 15,869 people, many of them clad in overcoats and parkas, showed up last Friday night to watch Pool A favorite Japan clobber China 18-2 at the 55,000-seat Tokyo Dome. That was 10,676 more than had shown for the opener that afternoon, in which Korea beat Chinese Taipei 2-0.
As the weather improved, however, so did attendance, which doubled to 31,047 for Japan's 14-3 slaughter of Chinese Taipei on Saturday, the second straight game that was ended by the event's seven-inning, 10-run mercy rule. Korea's 10-1 win over China ensured that Japan and Korea would advance to this weekend's second round in Anaheim and set the stage for an irrelevant, though highly charged, first-round finale, played before Japan's crown prince and princess, Japanese baseball legend Shigeo Nagashima and some 35,000 other fans.
Another lesson, learned the hard way by the undisputed star attraction of Pool A, Ichiro Suzuki, is not to return home sounding like one of the trash-talking U.S. major leaguers you've been hanging with for the last five years. Ten days before WBC play began, he told Nikkan Sports, "I don't want to just win. I want the people watching to feel that [our play] is beautiful and extraordinary. I want to win in a way that will make [the opposition] think that they won't be able to beat us for another 30 years." Ichiro also said in a pretournament press conference that he was excited to be playing with Japanese teammates who "stimulated" and "refreshed" him--an apparent swipe at his major league team, the Mariners, whose lack of commitment to winning he has criticized and who, he noted, have not been in the playoffs for four years.
Not surprisingly, the Koreans, who have seven major leaguers on their roster, were angered by Ichiro's remarks and played all out to prove him wrong. They succeeded in dramatic fashion on Sunday: In the top of the eighth inning, his team trailing 2-1 with a runner on first, 29-year-old lefthanded power hitter Seung Yeop Lee knocked a pitch from lefty Hirotoshi Ishii into the right centerfield stands, lifting Korea to a 3-2 win and first place in Pool A.
In second-round pool play, when Korea must again face Japan as well as, most likely, the U.S. and Mexico, the players have special motivation to succeed. They are all aware that the members of the South Korean squad that won the gold medal in the 1998 Asian Games in Bangkok were given exemptions from their nation's compulsory military service. Said Korea manager Kim In Sik, "Who knows what the government will do if we win?"
Robert Whiting is the author of You Gotta Have Wa and the Western world's foremost authority on Japanese baseball.
? Read more about the WBC at SI.com/baseball.