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The Hot Corner: Ready for another Classic?

by Jim Allen (Jan 8, 2009)

"The first time, no one knew what to expect. This time will be different. We'll be ready." Such are the sentiments of many heading into the second World Baseball Classic.

In the first WBC, the expected showdown between major league stars from around the world turned into nearly the opposite: A team with two major leaguers, Japan, defeating a team with no one from MLB, Cuba, in the final.

Organizers of MLB-heavy squads could do little but scratch their heads and mutter, "Who are those guys?" But they weren't alone. The Japanese, too, might have been uttering the same words every time they played South Korea.

Japan was dynamite when it counted most, but manager Sadaharu Oh's squad entered the semifinals with a mediocre 3-3 record, having suffered one heart-breaking defeat to the United States and two more to South Korea.

The Korean upsets began with an electric come-from-behind victory over Japan in the Tokyo Round finale, a 7-3 win over the U.S. and improved to 6-0 with an in-your-face win over Ichiro Suzuki and company in Anaheim. The South Koreans didn't organize the bash, but they sure turned it into a surprise party.

So while the Japanese return with better credentials than they brought in 2006, they are hardly hot favorites to repeat.

"The first tournament taught the world about Japan's game, but America is the game's birthplace, so whoever wins the title will have to beat the Americans to get it," new Japan manager Tatsunori Hara said in November.

The selection process that put the Yomiuri Giants manager in charge for 2009 was a joke, but assembling this squad has been vastly easier than it was for Oh. Three years ago, Oh was left completely in the dark about how to put his team together.

When he heard in September 2005 that Ichiro would jump at a chance to play for Japan--provided Oh personally asked him--the skipper told The Hot Corner: "I wonder if it's against the rules to call him. Can I do that? I don't know."

Ichiro signed on in a heartbeat, but two stars many assumed would play, Tadahito Iguchi and Hideki Matsui, turned Oh down. But they weren't the only ones to shy away from the event.

A lot of people, from players on up, kept their distance in 2006 because the WBC was just too novel.

In one sense, the real struggles of 2006 were not between players on the field but between competing visions of the game.

On one side were those who dreamed of new dynamics beyond the traditional boundaries of leagues and borders. On the the other side were people whose vital vision was of perfecting the game within its traditional boundaries of clubs battling within leagues for pennants. To many of the latter group, the idea of a short tournament for a world title meant nothing.

Jim Small, the director of MLB Japan, says the debate is still going on, but the first tournament's success has brought many more on board.

Matsui, who opted out in 2006 so he could spend more time with his Yankees, was eager to make up for that by joining Hara's squad. Unfortunately, his surgically repaired knee will keep him out.

One player Japan's fans might wish to see sit this one out is the Giants' South Korean first baseman Lee Seung Yeop, who demolished Japan in the 2006 WBC and again in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Lee missed most of Yomiuri's games last year with injury. But unlike major league clubs, which reserve the right to withold injured players, the Giants can't keep Lee out.

Regardless of whether Lee is wearing Korean colors or not in Tokyo in March, the anticipation will be tremendous.

And it won't stop there.

While Hara's team will be much better prepared than Oh's was in 2006, so will the competition, including the Americans.

"The Americans aren't going to take what happened last time lying down," Hara said.

Three years ago, the U.S. squad certainly underestimated the challenge and paid the price. If the theme for 2006 was "Who Are You," the Americans may have spent the three years since then plotting redemption with a line from another Who song in their ears:

"We don't get fooled again."


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