Classic final shows dominance of East
Japan's win over Korea further proof of baseball's international progress
The World Baseball Classic, in general, was once again a celebration of the internationalization of baseball. But in specific terms, the tournament was a celebration of Eastern baseball.
And we do not mean "Eastern" in the sense of Tampa Bay, Boston and New York. This is the absolute East, the real East, the Far East.
Japan defeated Korea, 5-3, in 10 innings on Monday night to win the second World Baseball Classic. The winning runs were driven in by, of course, the incomparable Ichiro Suzuki. The game was a gem, but then, with these two teams playing with something serious at stake, how could it be anything less?
The performance of the teams from Japan and Korea would come as no surprise to anyone who was paying attention three years ago, in the inaugural Classic. The Japanese won that tournament. The Koreans had the best overall record in the first Classic, their misfortune being that their only loss was badly timed; in the semifinals to the Japanese.
The performance of these teams, then and now, has made clear how superb the level of play has become in Japanese and Korean baseball. These teams are a joy to watch. They are strong in the essential components of the game; pitching, defense, fundamentals. They play with discipline and precision. They do the small things; the things that often are overshadowed in the North American game with the endless search for the three-run homer.
Many American hitters could learn, for instance, the useful, time-honored, two-strike hitting approach by watching their Eastern counterparts. The first two swings are for you, but the third one is for the team. Cut down your swing, by all means put the ball in play and give your team a chance rather than trudging back to the dugout after yet another strikeout in which nothing was learned nor achieved.
Yes, after watching the Korean and Japanese national teams excel in two consecutive Classics, it is clear that both are to be not only congratulated but emulated. And therein lies the lesson from two of these global events: Baseball may have been America's game in the beginning, but there are other people sharing fully in it now.
For the game of baseball, its growth and its reach, that is a terrific development. For the relative strength of America's national team, the news is not so good. But there is no need to become particularly parochial just because teams from an entirely different hemisphere are defeating the local lads.
This tournament is more about the tremendous strides made by baseball on the other side of the world than it is about the shortcomings of Team USA.
Without gnashing all of our teeth, the American team was more competitive than it was in the first Classic, although it was still not good enough. The U.S. was knocked out in the second round in 2006, but this time reached the semis. That "mercy rule" loss to Puerto Rico caused some embarrassment, but Puerto Rico is still a U.S. territory, so this rout could be happily rationalized.
There are numerous theories about why baseball's homeland comes up short in this event. Some of them, such as the training and the timing, make a certain amount of sense. But one issue soars above all the rest.
The continuing problem is that the U.S. sends a few of its best pitchers to the Classic, but not many of its best pitchers. At base, this is more of a market issue than a competitive issue. As long as pitching is so incredibly expensive, many American employers of many American aces are going to want their massive investments tucked safely away in Spring Training, rather than going full tilt in March in an emotionally charged international competition. Perhaps this stance will change over time, but so far, basic appeals to patriotism have not frequently succeeded.
As Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig said to ESPN's broadcast crew on Monday night: "We need to pick up the intensity of our selection process."
Absolutely. Let's twist more arms to get better arms.
But again, there was a time not that long ago when America could have sent a random roster to this competition and still have reasonably expected to win. What has changed is not the quality of North American baseball, but the quality of Eastern baseball. So in addition to being congratulated and emulated, the teams from Japan and Korea should be fully appreciated.
What changes will occur between now and the 2013 World Baseball Classic? Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Or maybe in this case, immigration is the sincerest form of flattery. The Major League team in your area should be looking very hard for more talent in East Asia. If you can't beat them, have them join you. This is apparently the one way in which North American baseball can still find an international path to success.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.