Baseball

March 27, 2006

Back toBasics
Humbled in the World Baseball Classic, U.S. players could learn something fromtheir counterparts outside the majors

The inaugural World Baseball Classic, a joint venture between major leagueowners and players, hawked nationalism and big league star power to promote thegame internationally. By the tournament's 39th and final game on Monday,however, the cost of doing such global business included the devaluing of theAmerican ideal of what it means to be major league.

The star-studdedU.S. team, for instance, lost half of its six games and could not get out ofthe second round of pool play. Most strikingly, after major league clubs hadproudly supplied 180 players to WBC rosters, the championship game was decidedbetween Japan, which had only two major leaguers (outfielder Ichiro Suzuki andpitcher Akinori Otsuka), and Cuba, which had none.

"I alwaysthought that the best players in the world were in the major leagues,"Otsuka said last Saturday, after Japan beat Korea 6-0 to reach the final."This tournament shows that's not true."

The concept ofworld champion was also redefined by the 16-nation tournament. Japan earnedthat designation with a 10-6 win in Monday's final; Japan had been 4-33 againstCuba in international play.

Never before hadthe baseball world seemed so small, not with the perceived talent gap betweenmajor leaguers and other international players having shrunk to near nothing.Cuba, for instance, reached the final by beating teams stocked with bigleaguers from Venezuela, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, the last a 3-1win in which pitchers Yadel Marti and Pedro Luis Lazo toyed with theDominicans.

"The messagehas already been given," Cuban outfielder Frederich Cepeda said after thesemifinal win. "The good players are everywhere in the world. Baseball isbaseball anywhere in the world. But we see baseball as such not because of theprice of athletes but because of the heart with which they play."

The U.S. versionof the game, which enriches pitchers and players mostly for their power, fellflat. Outside of a 17-0 pounding of a South African team that had 10 teenagers,the Americans batted .242, including .125 with runners in scoring position;stole one base; and scored six runs in five games without the benefit of a homerun.

Teams such asCuba, Japan and Korea, meanwhile, played with the versatility andfastidiousness that were hallmarks of the major leagues more than a generationago. Korea's nimble fielders flawlessly handled all 173 balls put in playagainst them. Japan's pitchers struck out more than three times as many batters(60) as they walked (17 in eight games). Except for two doubles and two homeruns, the Cuban team beat Venezuela, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republicwith 25 singles.

It was oddlyold-fashioned, too, to see in a major league park the game of pepper (in whicha batter raps softly tossed balls back at one or more fielders) and infield(pregame fielding practice in which infielders and outfielders throw to bases),as Cuba and Japan did last Saturday at Petco Park in San Diego. Both drillsvirtually vanished from the major leagues many years ago.

"You see thevalue of their practice regimen when they take hundreds of ground balls aday," said U.S. manager Buck Martinez. "They swing a hundred times aday more than we do in North America. I think it is time to say, 'You knowwhat? That's not a bad idea.'"

Despite or evenbecause of the American failure, the tournament thrived so well as a showcaseof the game that some clamored to hold the WBC more often. (The next tournamentis scheduled for 2009, then every four years thereafter.) More merchandise wassold in the first round than organizers expected to sell in the entirethree-week tournament. Television ratings were strong. The games were contestedwith playoff-caliber intensity. Participants gushed about playing for nationalpride.

As Chan Ho Park,the Padres pitcher who played for Korea, said after the semifinal loss toJapan, "By playing baseball, we made history in Korea and brought peopletogether. People are in a difficult time in Korea economically, but thisbrought people together. The WBC is a great event. I'm very proud to be part ofit."

In their own waythe U.S. and the major leaguers did their part in highlighting the quality ofplay around the world.

PHOTOCHRIS CARLSON/AP (MATSUNAKA)ALLHAIL - Nobuhiko Matsunaka (below) doubled in Japan's semifinal victory overKorea. PHOTOPHIL ELLSWORTH[Seecaption above]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)