World Baseball Classic 2006
David Peffley reviews Japan's win in the inaugural World Baseball Classic
Since 1903, baseball's "world series" has been exclusively an American affair, pitting the winner of the United States' National and American Leagues against each other.
And as baseball's popularity around the globe has increased, many fans have clamored for a true world series. That dream has come to fruition. In March 2006 the inaugural World Baseball Classic was played to an enthusuastic worldwide audience.
The tournament featured 16 teams from five continents. Amongst others, it included a United States team loaded with future Hall of Fame players and past and reigning Most Valuable Players, a Dominican squad sporting some of the most feared hitters in the game, and a balanced Venezuelan club dealing up some of the finest pitchers in the game. Ironically, however, the Championship game featured Japan and Cuba, and offered a combined total of two players from the American Major Leagues.
The improbable main bout pitted two teams who performed solidly and consistently, but with some very human failings. And in order to reach the final, both squads had to avenge previous tournament defeats in the semi-final round. In the case of Japan, they had lost twice to Korea, overcome abysmal officiating, and were forced to rely on a stunning upset just to land them in the semi-final round.
The Cuban team overcame a heavily-favored Dominican squad which had soundly defeated them in the previous round. Although that obstacle was nothing compared to that faced to even enter the tournament - Cuba had to overcome the United States government's endeavor to deny visas to the players from the Communist nation on the usual political grounds.
At the onset, the championship game, played in San Diego, California before a sellout crowd of 42,696 seemed as though it would be anticlimactic as Japan, who entered the tournament as a 14-1 underdog, jumped out to a 4-0 lead in the first inning and never relinquished the lead.
Pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka, the Most Valuable Player of the tournament held the Cuban team to just one run through five innings. The Cubans, sporting distinctive red uniforms were game, chipping away at the lead after the exit of Matsuzaka and even pulled to within 6-5 in the 8th inning thanks to two uncharacteristic errors on Japan and a two run home run by Cuban star Frederich Cepeda.
Team Japan then responded with four runs in the ninth inning, putting the game out of reach. Cuba mounted one more rally before succumbing 10-6, leaving team Japan to swarm the field and repeatedly toss their manager, the famed Sadaharu Oh into the air in celebration of their victory.
For the game of baseball and its fans, the Classic was an overwhelming success. The tournament featured the passion and pageantry nearly rivaling the Olympic games, especially amongst the Latin American participants. The Classic saw fantastic games, a no hitter thrown by Shairon Martis of the Netherlands, the possible swan song of Roger Clemens, the most dominating pitcher of the last quarter century, clutch hitting, awesome displays of power, and dominating pitching performances. And from the beginning, Japan kept a high profile.
The tournament began on March 3 at The Tokyo Dome. Japan competed in a regional preliminary with Taiwan, Korea, and the Republic of China. As expected, neither Japan nor Korea experienced much trouble with the two Chinas.
Thus as both victors had already qualified for the next round, they met in the final game of the regional, meaningless with regard to the tournament, but given the historical and geopolitical conflicts between the two nations, the game roused plenty of interest.
Just to make sure, though, Japanese superstar Ichiro Suzuki, renowned throughout the baseball world, parlayed the importance of the game at least in the collective mind of the Koreans, as he haughtily pronounced that not only would Japan trounce both Korea and Taiwan, but that Japan wouldn't be beaten by its Asian adversaries for the next thirty years.
If Korea didn't have proper motivation beforehand, they did after Ichiro, in poor taste, shot off his mouth. In fact Japan looked as though they would win the game, taking a 2-1 lead into the eighth inning, but Korean superstar and All-tournament team first baseman, Seung Yeop Lee smacked a dramatic two-run home run to propel Korea to victory. Especially ironic is that it was Ichiro, himself, who popped the ball up meekly to the third baseman to end the game.
During the second round, Japan, grouped with Korea, the United States and Mexico, appeared headed for an early exit from the tournament after losing to both the United States and once again, Korea. During the US-Japan game, Japan suffered from a horrific hometown officiating call.
It was not just an incorrect call as the replay clearly shows, but one in which American umpire and crew chief Bob Davidson overturned a correct call by his colleague, taking what could have been the game-deciding run for Japan off the board and showing an unquestionable bias toward the host nation.
Japan still could and perhaps should have won the game, yet they suffered a second bullpen meltdown, and were beaten by the resilient Yankee squad. Still, Japan had a chance to clinch a berth in the semi-final round with a win against Korea. And again, Korea came away with the victory, this time in a hard-fought 2-1 game.
It took the improbable victory by Mexico over the US and Roger Clemens, to send Japan surprisingly, enduringly into the semi-final round, where they would once again meet Korea.
The third try was the charm for Japan as a stellar pitching performance by Koji Uehara propelled Japan by the Korean squad 6-0 in a game which featured no drama whatsoever. The Japanese squad dominated from the outset and sent home a dejected Korean squad which had previously won all six of its tournament games entering the single elimination semi-final.
Precise pitching, expert defense, and timely hitting led a very balanced Japanese club to the first tournament championship. Three Japanese players were selected to the all-tournament team, MVP, Matsuzaka, who won all three of his games and was virtually unhittable, Ichiro Suzuki, and catcher, Tomoya Satozaki, who would not even had started had Japan's best catcher Kenji Johjima elected to play in the tournament.
And not to be minimized was the managing of Japanese legend, the much revered Sadaharu Oh, who seemed surprised by his almost celebrity status among the baseball brass. The diminutive Oh, professional baseball's all-time home run leader, managed with flexibility, as the tournament rules disallowed Oh from rotating his pitchers as he ordinarily would have.
Oh adeptly utilized his teams' depth, and overcame the loss of half-a-dozen of Japan's best players, who did not participate to prepare for the upcoming Major League baseball season.
Oh's spiked shoes will head a list of items from the tournament which will be permanently displayed in the baseball museum's hall of fame in Cooperstown, New York, along with Matsuzaka's jersey, Suzuki's batting helmet, Uehara's warm-up jacket, and the cap of slugger Nobuhiko Matsunaka who played the tournament as though it was slow-pitch softball, incredibly reaching base over half his times at bat.
While Japan was the de facto champion of the event, perhaps the biggest winner, however, was the sport of baseball. The tournament captured the frenzy of hundreds of thousands, if not millions of fans particularly throughout Latin America, where supporters packed public plazas to watch the games and in Asia, where work schedules were altered to follow the action.
The baseball world got to see a true world series. And where nations such as Cuba, Venezuela, and the United States, not to mention The Republic of China and the People's Republic of China, between whom international relations are icy to say the least, could get together on a diamond and play a little ball. This tournament also showed that while the American Major Leagues is still king, fantastic baseball is being played outside the borders of the United States. In fact, only five of twelve members of the all-tournament team play American major league baseball.
In the United States, the host nation, initial excitement, even amongst baseball fans, was lukewarm. However, as the Classic progressed, the indifference turned to excitement and even fascination among the baseball community.
American superstar, Derek Jeter spoke for more than just a few of his compadres, who initially balked at participation in the tournament and later rued that decision. Major League commissioner Bud Selig underscored that point and spoke of the legacy of the tournament:
"The intensity in the stands as well as the intensity on the playing field was absolutely remarkable, and I'm not sure that going into it you could have felt that. I'm very confident that this will be the platform that we use to take this sport internationally to the dimension that I want to take it and believe that we will."
So with the commissioner's blessing and the first World Baseball Classic trophy safely ensconced in the Land of the Rising Sun, we look forward to 2009 and the next World Baseball Classic.