King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Japan wins the world baseball championship of the whole wide world, so take that, Chicago. Plus: Alfonso Soriano, refusenik.


Salon Staff
March 21, 2006 10:00PM (UTC)

Oh, great, they're saying in Tampa. The Devil Rays are finally going to win the World Series this year, and we're going to get guff for calling them the world champions.

OK, maybe they're not saying that, but the world champions of baseball are not the Chicago White Sox but your Japan, uh, Japanese Guys.

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Japan beat Cuba 10-6 in the championship game of the World Baseball Classic Monday night in San Diego in a game that -- hang on a second, Cuba manager Higinio Velez is changing pitchers again.

The Japanese caught a break in the second round when Mexico surprised the United States, punching Japan's ticket to the final four, where their brand of scientific baseball -- throwing strikes, moving runners along, hitting to the opposite field, stealing bases, throwing to the cutoff man, that sort of thing -- finally prevailed over Korea, which had beaten Japan twice, and the Cubans, kings of international baseball.

It was fitting that this tournament, which turned out to be a really fun event, reached its finale without the Americans being involved, except as spectators. As we've discussed, this wasn't meant for us, even though most of it was played in our ballparks. It was meant to get that part of the world not excited about baseball excited about baseball.

Don't know if that worked, if fantasy drafts are raging across Italy, South Africa and the Netherlands, but those ballparks in California, Arizona and Florida were filled with Dominicans, Koreans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Mexicans, Japanese and Venezuelans, among others, who were already plenty excited about baseball and who approach international sports in a whole different way from how Yanks approach it.

That is, they care about it. A lot. And that's why it was good that the U.S. got bounced. Which would you have rather watched, Japan's boisterous celebration or one by the Americans?

I suspect that would have been more like a New York Yankees celebration of a division title: "Nice job, fellas. That's what was supposed to happen." I can't picture Derek Jeter and Co. tossing manager Buck Martinez into the air the way the Japanese did with Sadaharu Oh.

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We Americans mostly only care about international competitions we're supposed to win. And then we get all petulant if we don't win, though the nation didn't seem able to muster much dudgeon over Team USA's lackluster showing in the WBC.

We have our own championships to worry about. I know some people consider this attitude some kind of moral failing but I don't.

It's not as though our greater interest in the World Series, say, than international competition represents some sort of xenophobia. The White Sox won the World Series last year with a Venezuelan manager and important players from Venezuela, Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Japan and whatever planet Carl Everett comes from.

And where do you think most of those fans who went to the games and waved Korean, Japanese, Cuban and Dominican flags live?

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So Japan's your world champion, and three cheers for them. If the Chicago White Sox or next year's World Series winners -- Devil Rays, I tell you -- want to call themselves world champions too, that's OK with me. It's just an old tradition, to be taken about as seriously as when you used to call yourself the world champion gum sticker on the bottom of desks.

Japan's the world champion too, and maybe whoever won the last Olympics. Was it Cuba? Let's ask manager Higinio Velez -- oh, dang, he's on his way out to the mound again.

There's no way to know if the Japanese national team would win one of the American major leagues over a whole season or beat a pennant winner in a seven-game series. There's no way to know how last year's White Sox would have done in this tournament.

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There probably isn't any way to make the World Baseball Classic a fair event that would pit the world's best-possible national teams playing in midseason form.

If you play it in March the Cubans are in the middle of their season while most of the rest of the teams are in spring training, including the champion Japanese. Play it in November and you might get even more big stars begging off than stayed away this time, and the Cubans would be out of season.

Interrupting the major league season for two weeks doesn't seem realistic. The whole idea of the WBC is to market major league baseball, not put it on ice for a fortnight.

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So it is what it is. Does the WBC championship prove that Japan has the world's best baseball? No, no more than a win by Cuba, Korea or the Dominican Republic -- or the United States -- would have.

But Japan just won a heck of a tournament, one that provided some terrific baseball and some raucous crowds, two things not often seen in March on these shores. I was a skeptic going in, but the WBC won me over. If nothing else, it beat the heck out of a regular spring training.

The final attendance: 732,922. A little shy of MLB president Bob DuPuy's early prediction of 800,000, but quite a lot of people. It represents 60.7 percent capacity, and a lot of those empty seats were in the first-round games played in too-large stadiums in Phoenix and Anaheim.

After the first round, the WBC filled Angel Stadium, Hiram Bithorn Stadium and Petco Park to 77.8 percent capacity.

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Soriano won't go [PERMALINK]

Hard to miss the irony of Alfonso Soriano refusing to report to left field for the Washington Nationals on the same day the Japanese team rode its work ethic and team-first philosophy to a world championship.

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Soriano, heretofore a second baseman, has said all spring he would not play left field for his new team, which acquired him in a trade with the Texas Rangers and has Jose Vidro installed at second.

The standoff came to a head Monday when Soriano, back from the World Baseball Classic, where he made the last out in the semifinal loss to Cuba, simply did not take the field when the Nats ran to their positions for the first inning of an exhibition game against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Manager Frank Robinson replaced him. General manager Jim Bowden, who figures to be on a pretty hot seat if he can't get this situation worked out, especially if Brad Wilkerson, whom Bowden traded to the Rangers for Soriano, hits a lot of home runs in their bandbox ballpark, said that Soriano would be put on the disqualified list if he refused to play left in the next game, Wednesday.

"All sports have watershed moments," Thomas Boswell fumed in the hometown blat, the Washington Post. "Baseball is at one now. The public is sick of stars whose bodies are inflated by steroids or whose egos are inflated by wealth."

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I don't think any of that's true, but it's cool how the Post's Web designers can make steam come out of the ears on Boswell's mug shot.

This too shall pass. The Nationals are going to say Soriano's violating his contract by not reporting to the pasture, and Soriano, his agent or the union is going to say that the Nationals are diminishing his value by playing him out of position. They'll work it out or they won't, and the Nationals won't win the National League East.

But we can go too far with this isn't-it-ironic business, contrasting Soriano's petulance to the golden harmony of the WBC winners and using the comparison as an example of how -- what was it? -- wealthy, ego-inflated major leaguers ought to learn a little something.

Wasn't one of the stars of the wealthy, ego-inflated, pampered, underachieving Team USA Chipper Jones, the Atlanta Braves third baseman who spent two years traipsing around Turner Field's left field to make room for Vinnie Castilla?

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For Vinnie Castilla!

There's your argument, right there, Nationals: "Chipper Jones is better than you and Jose Vidro's better than Vinnie Castilla. Now get out there."

I'm sure the Japanese players will back me up on this theory: You can't win a world championship without a left fielder. The Nationals are about to prove it.

Previous column: NCAA Tournament

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