The hills of Newark, Ohio were alive last week with the sounds of Italian opera, Latin salsa, Korean folk music and the gentle strains of God Bless America. The occasion wasn't an international music festival, but an international baseball festival, specifically, the first World Friendship Baseball Series for youths 18 and under.
The 11 nations represented were Australia, Canada, El Salvador, Guatemala, Holland, Italy, the Republic of China ( Taiwan), South Korea, Sweden, the U.S. and Venezuela. The financial shorts kept Panama from showing up, so Nerk, Ahia, as locals jokingly call their town, substituted its own team at the last minute.
A good time, not to mention good baseball, was had by all, and when the World Friendship Series was over last Saturday night, Korea was the champion. Under a spectacular moon, the Koreans bowed to the crowd and then celebrated by tossing each other into the air and singing Arirang, a traditional folk song. The crowd then toasted the second-place U.S. team with a sweet rendition of our second-string anthem.
Even though the U.S. holds the patent on baseball, it was really no surprise that Korea won. While this tournament was being played in Newark, 8,000 miles away, in Seoul, a team of Korean college all-stars was taking a seven-game series against a team of topflight U.S. collegians four games to one. Earlier, that U.S. team had also lost to the Japanese four to one. In all, 77 countries play baseball, about 40 with some proficiency. The country that may have the best amateur program of all is Cuba, which wasn't represented in Newark. Still, the Cubans would have been hard pressed to defeat the Koreans.
Baseball is now the No. 1 sport in Korea. A crowd of 50,000 for a high school game there isn't unusual, and Friendship games were telecast back via satellite. The Koreans sent their very best to Newark, and trained hard for 40 days before the start of the series. The U.S. team, on the other hand, was selected by the University of Northern Colorado's IBM System/34 computer, based on information provided by 18,000 high school and youth league coaches across the country. The players didn't try out and had only three days to practice together. For a makeshift team, the U.S. did very well.
The World Friendship Series was a prelude to baseball's appearance as a demonstration sport in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. Last week it demonstrated, or at least strongly suggested, that America isn't likely to dominate Olympic baseball as it has Olympic basketball, another U.S.-bred sport. But that may not be so bad. If amateur baseball competition can be shown to be wide open, then it has a better chance of being accepted as the 22nd Summer Olympic sport.
"We wanted to show the world that we could run a successful international tournament on this scale," said Dick Case, executive director of the U.S. Baseball Federation. Said Bob Smith, the USBF president and acting president of the International Association of Amateur Baseball, "We succeeded beyond my wildest expectations." Attendance for the 34-game series at Don Edwards Park, a nice field hard by the B&O Railroad yards, was 65,834, and the final game drew 10,477 fans, which isn't bad for a town with a population of slightly more than 40,000. Newark may seem an unlikely place to hold an international tournament, but it has been host to four Babe Ruth World Series. Located about 35 miles east of Columbus, it's famous for the manufacture of lawn mowers and the Hopewell Indians, a tribe that roamed the area about 2,000 years ago and built large earthen burial mounds. Some of the mounds have been incorporated into a local golf course, but none was used for pitching at Don Edwards. The town also does a brisk business selling Nerk T shirts, an item the Australians got a big kick out of, because Down Under a nerk is a simpleton.
The Koreans were truly gifted players: They allowed just five hits in the four games in their bracket, no-hitting both Holland and Sweden and outscoring their opponents 45-1. And, boy, are, they strict! One of their coaches was seen bopping errant players on the head with a stick, and a kick in the rear for making a mistake wasn't uncommon. "If we tried to do something like that with any of our players," said U.S. Assistant Coach Don Stout, "we'd have a lawsuit on our hands." Luke Im, the head of the Korean Association of Greater Columbus, explained, "They're very obedient. A strong bond is built up among the players and coaches. They're like brothers and sons."
Although the Koreans train and live and play as one, they do have performers who stand out. Sun Dong-yeol, a business major in college, has a prodigious fastball that approaches 90 mph. Bruce Dal Canton, a former major league pitcher who now scouts for the White Sox, watched Sun and said, "You can steal all day on his windup, he pitches on top of the rubber instead of in front of it, and his ball has no real movement. But, boy, would I have liked that arm." Sun overpowered the U.S. in the first of the two games on Saturday that would determine the champion. He allowed six hits and struck out 11 in winning 3-1. The Koreans' second-best pitcher, Kim Keun-woo, who is also his team's best hitter, held the Americans to four hits in the second game, while striking out 10. Final score: Korea 3, U.S. 2.
The U.S. squad was the product of an experiment to see if a team could be selected objectively, sight unseen. Forms were sent out to state high school associations, which were supposed to forward them to local high school coaches, although there were breakdowns in some states. Stout, for instance, never got a form at Greenville (Ill.) High School. The results that did come in were fed into the computer, which spit out the 10 best players at each position. The players were then chosen by a committee composed of Northern Colorado Coach Tom Petroff, his assistant and a psychologist. Two of the machine's top choices had already been signed by the major leagues, and the computer also came up with a few clunkers. But it knew enough to pick a catcher named Lombardi: Phil Lombardi from Granada Hills, Calif., a third-round draft choice of the Yankees, who signed after the last game. Lombardi got hold of one of Sun's fastballs for the U.S. team's only run in the first game of the finals.