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03/23/2006 Archived Entry: "WORLD BASEBALL CLASSIC Review"

"Two Thumbs Up!"

The first World Baseball Classic in now in the books after Japan’s 10-6 victory over Cuba in the title game March 20 in San Diego. While it’s no shock that either team made it to the Finals, both took somewhat circuitous routes to get there: Japan had to get past a stubborn South Korean team in the semifinals, while the Cubans had to overcome the U.S. Treasury Department before the WBC even began.

Japan had lost twice to the pitching-strong Koreans earlier in the WBC before finally subduing their Asian rivals 6-0 on March 18 in the semifinals at Anaheim's Angel Stadium. Even making it to the semis was a question for the Japanese after a questionable umpiring call in Pool 1 action cost them a ninth inning lead over the United States, who went on to beat Japan 4-3. It took a surprising 2-1 Mexico victory over the USA on March 16 to vault Japan to their final four match-up with Korea, who had won six straight contests en route to Pool A and Pool 1 championships.

Mexico’s win over the United States knocked the United States out of the tournament, and served notice that Mexican fortunes in international baseball have turned for the better after poor performances in November’s pre-Olympic qualifying tournament (where they were beaten out for a slot in the next stage of Olympic competition by perennial doormat Panama) and the winter Mexican Pacific League champion Mazatlan Venados’ winless appearance in February’s Caribbean Series. While it had to be embarrassing for the United States and, by proxy, Major League Baseball, their elimination from a tournament they organized and hosted should dispel any notion of taking success in this type of competition for granted ever again. Sometimes the best lessons are applied by taking a proverbial 2x4 across the forehead.

Meanwhile, the Cubans first had to defeat an opponent they could not meet on the field when the Treasury Department initially disallowed their participation in the Classic because of sanctions that have been in place against Cuba for over four decades. Fortunately, cooler heads ultimately prevailed and the island nation (which has been a baseball hotbed since long before Castro or even Batista held power there) was allowed to address any skepticism that the Cubans were as powerful as stated because they had compiled their enviable international record against collegiate and amateur competition. This was not a tournament for college kids.

Frankly, there were some doubts when the Cubans had to fight to beat a weak Panama team 8-6 in their Pool C opener, then suffered a 12-2 drubbing at the hands of host Puerto Rico in the final game of first round play. Neither Panama nor the Netherlands are in the same class as the Cubans, so eyebrows were raised as they entered Pool 2 play against much tougher competition with host Puerto Rico, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic. After four games, all four countries had 1-1 records with one game apiece left on the schedule. The Dominicans earned one semi berth by winning a 2-1 nailbiter over Venezuela, but it was Cuba’s 4-3 win over Puerto Rico in front of a heavily partisan crowd in San Juan’s jampacked Hiram Bithorn Stadium that showed that the Cubans were for real.

The semifinals in San Diego were no less dramatic. In a day-night doubleheader, Cuba opened the March 18 action with a 3-1 win over a Dominican team loaded with major league talent. While the Cuban hitters were not exactly rattling the PETCO Park fences, they collected enough bloopers and flares to give adequate run support to their pitchers, who were simply outstanding. The outcome was less in doubt in the nightcap, as Japan ended South Korea’s six-game win skein with their 6-0 win. There was a certain degree of vindication for the Japanese, who had lost to the underrated Koreans 3-2 in Tokyo on March 5 in the final game of Pool A play before falling again by a 2-1 count to South Korea on March 15 in a Pool 1 game at Anaheim. Japanese star Ichiro Suzuki had earlier drawn the ire of Korean fans by saying that Japan was about 30 years ahead of South Korean baseball, and another Suzuki comment that his main impression of a visit to Korea was that the country smelled like cabbage did nothing to help relations between the two nations (which have less than cordial even during the best of times over the centuries for many reasons). Once past the Koreans, Suzuki was able to concentrate on beating Cuba in the final game, keying the Japanese offense with three hits in their 10-6 win. After the game, a champagne-drenched Suzuki stated, “This is probably the biggest moment of my baseball career.”

All in all, it’s safe to say the inaugural World Baseball Classic was a success. The title game crowd of more than 42,000 pushed the final tournament attendance figure to 737,112 for the 39-game schedule, an average of 18,900 per game. While that may not seem like an impressive figure at first glance, bear in mind may of those openings included such yawner as the Netherlands-Panama and Australia-Italy matches. Also, a number of games were played in Spring Training facilities in Arizona and Florida, which simply did not have the capacity to draw larger crowds even if there was sufficient interest in a given game.

While there was much criticism of the WBC tiebreaker rule based on earned-run averages in games between teams tied in pool standing, that is not a bad way to go because it emphasizes pitching and defense. Which is worse to watch: A game in which one team piles up 20-25 runs against a hapless opponent like South Africa to advance to the next round; or a game in which it’s more important to limit such an opponent’s offense than to rack up a run total more appropriate in a slo-pitch softball game?

On a closing note, not all was gloom and doom for major leaguers in the WBC. While Florida Marlins pitcher Dontrelle Willis was shelled mercilessly and future Hall of Famer Mike Piazza batted a downright pathetic 1-for-11 with Italy’s team, there were some success stories, too. Prior this tournament, who but the most ardent Red Sox fan had ever heard of Adam Stern? His performance for Canada in their 8-6 Pool A win over the United States in which he whacked a huge home run and followed that up with a circus catch in center field is the stuff you expect in storybooks, not real life.

And it was hard not to be gladdened by the resurgence of Ken Griffey Junior for the USA. All but written off by many as an injury-prone player who used to be great, Griffey finished as the best batter in the WBC, hitting .524 with three homer and 10 RBI’s in six games. For a man who once embodied the simple joy that playing baseball can bring, the hope here is that Junior can catch that lightning in a bottle and carry it through the upcoming season for the Cincinnati Reds.

Baseball needs more storylines like Griffey and the World Baseball Classic. I think we’ve all had enough of Barry Bonds and steroids.


Replies: 1 Comment

Yes, the WBC was a truly a success. At first, I was pretty sceptical of another of Bud Selig's projects. It was the players, team spirit, and fans that made the event exciting.

Posted by Robert Kiyoshi Shadlow @ 03/26/2006 08:47 AM EST

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