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THE HOT CORNER: Asian game made for March

by Jim Allen (Apr 2, 2009)

Japan and South Korea are the greatest baseball-playing nations in the world--at least in March. Fortunately for their national teams, that's when the World Baseball Classic is played.

It may be ironic, but the brainchild of Major League Baseball and its players' union has so far been the perfect spotlight for Asia's brand of practice-makes-perfect baseball.

The only reason South Korea and Japan weren't playing in their second straight final was because the 2006 format made sure they couldn't.

A contributor to one forum on japanesebaseball.com wrote that the Koreans were the real champions in 2006, which is like saying Al Gore was elected president of the United States in 2000. Gore pulled in more votes but that didn't make him president. Korea was the best team in 2006, but Japan won the title.

By preventing these two teams from meeting in the first stage of the knockout round last week, the WBC got a killer finale. And unless other teams and their players make some adjustments to the tournament's peculiar demands, Japanese and Korean fans can start making travel plans for the 2013 final.

So what has elevated these two Asian sides to dominance?

The first is a style of play that focuses on not losing. Although Japan's pro managers and pundits will tell you they're not playing high school ball, pro ball here is a hybrid: A 144-game regular season in which teams act as if the next run will determine the outcome of the pennant race.

While this makes for bizarre in-game tactics, these players are in their element in must-win situations where single runs can be decisive.

The second advantage is the target date for achieving peak form in Asia. Pitchers used to gradually raising their game through the preseason in major league camps are stunned to see other guys in the bullpen airing it out at 140 kph on Feb. 1.

Just as Japanese teams treat the first run as decisive, they approach Opening Day as the most important game of the season, and players here get ready earlier.

While it is certainly not true in all cases, batters in Japan can easily see better pitches in February than major league batters face in April. At least that's what it looked like in the WBC.

"Major league hitters are taught to dive into the ball and attack it," Jim Small, the director of MLB Japan said on Wednesday. "But that's hard to do if you haven't seen a lot of pitches."

In addition to seeing more quality pitches, batters on South Korean and Japanese clubs, who start camp much earlier, have seen more total pitches by March 1.

U.S. manager Davey Johnson admitted after losing to Japan in the semifinals that Asian clubs had a head start. He said, however, his guys gave it their all.

Small, too, believes the U.S. players gave a solid effort, but also thinks team selectors might need to opt for more contact hitters.

Mexico manager Vinny Castilla said he couldn't ask his big swingers to drastically change their approach.

"Hey, the bangers have got to bang," he said when asked if his club could counter the Asian teams' small-ball attack.

After 2006, the Americans said they were taking the second WBC more seriously and wouldn't be caught out again. One wonders what their theme will be in 2013, perhaps: "This time we absolutely won't get fooled again?"

People who want to see the WBC grow may wonder what will happen if Asians continue to own the thing. How eager will MLB be to support an event in 2025 if no one has won by then but South Korea and Japan?

For marketers looking around the world, the WBC is a success story even if it isn't yet a major deal in the United States. Attendance was up, viewership was up, merchandise sales were up, and sponsorship deals were up.

"This is the first time that baseball meant anything in the Netherlands," Small said of the team that made the quarterfinals after two improbable victories over the powerhouse Dominican Republic. "It was front page news. That's big for baseball.

"The United States is part of the equation, but I say to my American friends, 'It's part of the equation, but it's not the only part.'"


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