Prior to the opening pitch of the World Baseball Classic final, a symphony orchestra set up in the outfield and played the national anthems of both Japan and Korea. Yet even they failed to play with the same harmony and unity as the respective countries vying for the championship.
Japan may have won the WBC, 5-3, but the game was yet another reminder from the Far East how the game is supposed to be played.
Even before the game, watching Korea and Japan go through practice is almost like watching one of those Tom Emanski instructional tapes on a constant loop. Only the players taking infield, outfield, ground balls and fly balls at game speed a couple hours before the game aren't kids at a camp, they're grown professionals with the same desire to play the game as a kid in camp.
If that seems like a concept as foreign as watching the Nippon Ham Fighters, it's because you'd never catch an American team doing that. They're paid to play the game, not to take infield and outfield practice. Why practice fundamentals when you can spend that time talking to your agent or friends sitting behind home plate?
This isn't a criticism of American baseball as much as it is an appreciation for the way Korea and Japan approach the game and a realization that the game, in its purest unselfish sense, is better suited for the Korean and Japanese culture than the current American culture now.
While most American players, "think about the money and their next contract," as Tommy Lasorda said before the final, the game is tailor-made for both the Japanese and Koreans. In Japan, baseball often draws comparisons to the samurai spirit. It's all about the sacrifice, the team, playing disciplined and respecting the game. In a nutshell, it's all about the "wa," which is the oldest recorded name of Japan and basically means unity, harmony, peace and balance.
In RobertWhiting's book, You Gotta Have Wa, which dissects the difference between American and Japanese baseball, he wrote that, "Americans played ball. Japanese worked at it," with one Japanese player calling it "work ball." He tells the story of one Japanese player fielding 900 consecutive ground balls in nearly three hours before slumping to the ground, unable to get up. Another Japanese player threw down his glove after committing an error (a major no-no in Japan) causing his manager to slap him in the face in front of thousands of fans.
Thankfully there was none of that Monday, but there were plenty of highlight plays. There was Japan's Seiichi Uchikawa throwing a picture-perfect dart near the foul line in left field to get Young Min Ko out at second base in the fifth inning. Korea's infield turning an oh-so-close, inning ending double play as Japan looked to blow the game open with two men on and one out in the seventh. Young Min Ko's diving catch off a hit by Japan's Hiroyuki Nakajima that would have put the game out of reach in the ninth. Bum Ho Lee hitting a game-tying single off Japan's righty ace Yu Darvish in the bottom of the ninth, one strike away from ending the game, which literally shook Dodger Stadium afterwards. And, of course, IchiroSuzuki's patient eight-pitch at-bat, where he finally put Chang YongLim's splitter in play, and scored Uchikawa and Akinori Iwamura to give Japan a 5-3 lead and the eventual win in the tenth inning.
With three of the four finalists in the two WBCs being from Asia, including Japan, which has won the first two competitions, it is clear that the game may be America's pastime but it is Asia's present-time sport. This isn't simply a trend that can be reversed overnight like in basketball after one bad Olympics showing prompted the additions of Kobe Bryant and Mike Krzyewski, this is a fact of life that has existed for years and has only become recognized with the launch of the World Baseball Classic in 2006.
It is the greatest example of cultural divide that now exists between the country that invented the game and the countries that have embraced it and chosen to play it the way it was intended to be played.
As long as they stage the World Baseball Classic, America is destined to be the equivalent of England in the World Cup, griping that it can never win despite inventing the game and having the most popular professional league in the world. Of course, in international competition, history and individuality mean nothing. It's all about the team and playing as a collective unit and when it comes to baseball, no country does it better than Korea, which won gold in 2008 Olympics, and Japan, which has won the first two WBC titles.
Throughout Japan there are little leagues where kids of all ages, practice every weekend, year-round, in rain or snow, for eight hours, which includes three hours of running. It sounds like one of those generic, "I walked three hours in the show" stories you'd hear from your father before you realize, for many of those kids, the game is their Xbox, their Wii, their PS3. It's what the game used to mean to your dad and granddad when all they did was play ball from sunrise to sunset.
Watching Korea and Japan play Monday night in the rubber match of what was essentially a five-game series during the WBC was like watching a seamless Broadway show that had been rehearsed by the cast so often they could do it in their sleep. The players never argued a call, never second-guessed the manager, never trash talked their opponent and best of all, committed only one combined error during the course of the 10-inning classic. They don't just play the game right, they play it as close to perfect as possible.
In a time when baseball has been individualized, commercialized and altogether tarnished by nine-figure contracts, performance enhancing drugs and labor stoppages, Korea and Japan are an example that baseball can still be a beautiful pastime, even if it isn't entirely America's pastime anymore.