Tonight Japan and Korea will face off in a grudge match at Dodger Stadium â€“ having already split four games over the last two weeks — in the finale of the second World Baseball Classic.
Or hadnâ€™t you noticed?
You are, of course, forgiven if you hadnâ€™t. Heck, Saturday night on Channel 4 here in L.A. â€“ the city thatâ€™s hosting the final two rounds! â€“ the WBCâ€™s first semifinal game didnâ€™t even rate a mention on the 11 p.m. news, shunted aside by extensive coverage of UCLAâ€™s humiliating exit from the NCAA basketball tournament and quick glimpses at the Dodgersâ€™ and Angelsâ€™ spring-training action. (Never mind that Angels fans might have wanted to know that the clubâ€™s newest high-priced acquisition, outfielder Bobby Abreu, dropped an easy first-inning fly ball that opened the door for Koreaâ€™s 10-2 rout of his Venezuela team.)
Personally, I can barely control my excitement about tonightâ€™s final, which Iâ€™ll be watching from the same seat (hard against Dodger Stadiumâ€™s left-field foul pole) from which I saw the two semifinals. These WBC games offer an entirely different experience from your basic Major League Baseball matchup â€“ and not just because the Koreans and Japanese play a slap-hitting, hustling, slick-fielding version of the game from which Americans have lost all contact during the Steroids Era. Even World Series games canâ€™t offer the same type of baseball nirvana â€“ all-star talent on the field, and intensely passionate, eminently joyful (and thrillingly multicultural) fans in the stands â€“ that has been on display this weekend in Chavez Ravine.
Yet the WBC remains at (or off) the edge of our sporting radar screen, for numerous reasons. Scheduled during a month dominated by wall-to-wall college basketball coverage â€“ a month when, for most of the country, baseball is still thought of as a month away unless youâ€™re lucky/obsessive enough to travel to Florida or Arizona â€“ the tournament has difficulty attracting media interest. And most of the attention it does receive deals with ancillary issues that reflect poorly on the players and the event, rather than focusing on the games themselves.
Granted, the WBC is still riding on training wheels in this second go-round, but so far the event is as frustrating as it is exciting. Thereâ€™s plenty to love, and plenty to hate as well. To wit:
HATE: The timing. March is a problematic month in which to play games that mean something â€“ not just because of weather (most of the nation is still inhospitable to outdoor activity, limiting the tournament to friendlier climates or â€¦ yeccchhhh! â€¦ domes), but because this is the time when ballplayers traditionally are shaking off the winter rust and recapturing their timing at the plate, not diving for an up-the-middle grounder with national pride at stake. MLB commissioner Bud Selig says the WBC is in March to stay, but it absolutely needs to move — either to a midsummer fortnight when MLB takes a break (as the NHL does for hockeyâ€™s World Cup and the Olympics), or, preferably, to November. Sure, in the latter case the tournament would still be limited to southern cities, but at least the players would be in shape, the eyes of the sporting world would still be on baseball â€¦ and, most important, the sportâ€™s owners might not have such a cow over potential injuries (see below).
LOVE: The thundersticks. The Korean fans (and, to a lesser extent, the Japanese) sure know how to make a pulsating racket with them. And not just the kind of cacophony that Angels fans made during the 2002 World Series, which only went to prove (in an entirely new context) that white people suffer from a deficit of rhythm. The Koreans use them as the centerpiece for sustained, highly controlled cheers, full of words I donâ€™t begin to understand but powered by the universal language of inflatable tubes knocked together. Plus, the kids can pound each other with them and not do too much damage.
HATE: The negative buildup. What little focus the WBC receives during January and February revolves around whoâ€™s not playing, rather than who is. Homegrown big leaguers, in particular, seem to drop like flies during the first couple weeks of spring training, felled by minor hammy pulls or toe-jam outbreaks that are just serious enough to keep them off Team USA. The real culprits, of course, are not their bodies but their contracts, their GMs and their owners (see below). But the collective impact of this steady stream of backing-out ballplayers is to diminish the perceived importance of the WBC and to water down the competition in general â€“ and the American team in particular. (I wrote the first sentence of this column before Sundayâ€™s game even started, figuring there was little chance the Americans, a pickup team of highly distracted stars, would get past an intensely focused Japanese squad. It ainâ€™t rocket science.)
LOVE: The uniforms. The kaleidoscopic effect of nations outfitting their players in uniforms that feature the colors of their flags is sometimes inspiring, but more frequently comic. The Mexican team in particular, saddled with an orange-and-green combination that works fine on a sombrero but not so niftily on a baseball cap, habitually looks even more ridiculous than the San Diego Padres at their worst â€“ and if you follow baseball at all, you know the Padsâ€™ outfits are almost always horrendous.
HATE: The schedule. The WBC teams needed to get through two rounds of round-robin play to reach this weekendâ€™s Final Four. The games were spread out so that, for example, Team USA played eight games over 16 days â€“ at a time of year when players want to be facing live pitching nearly every day to get ready for the season. Chipper Jones whined last week about spending an interminable week in freezing Toronto during the first round, and itâ€™s easy to sympathize. More important, though, is the difficulty of maintaining momentum through time lags such as the four-day break between Team USAâ€™s last second-round game on Wednesday and last nightâ€™s semifinal. Finally, in a sport that revolves around self-contained series of games both during the regular season and playoffs, the championship of an international tournament should not rest on a trio of one-game matchups; instead, each semifinal, as well as the final, should be a best-of-three series.
LOVE: The tower of babble. On Saturday night every public-address announcement had to be made in three languages, which made for some wonderful juxtapositions of mellifluous Spanish, choppy Korean and, you know, â€˜Murican. Even better were the introductions that preceded every Korean at-bat â€“ first in standard-announcer-speak English, with the hyphenated names (incorrectly) given first, and then in batshit-enthusiastic Korean. Believe me, thereâ€™s an impressive difference between, â€œNow batting â€¦ Shin-Soo Choo â€¦â€ and a bunch of screaming you donâ€™t understand followed by â€œCHOO â€¦ Shin-SOO!â€
HATE: The nationalism. Iâ€™m generally not big on basing my rooting interest on an athleteâ€™s national origin â€“ which is why I despise NBCâ€™s America-centric Olympics coverage, and why I wasnâ€™t out there waving the flag for Team USA last night. In fact, once Korea had won Saturday nightâ€™s game I found it difficult to root against Japan, because the Korea-Japan matchup will be much more riveting (because of the two nationsâ€™ contentious history) than a Korea-USA tilt would have been. Besides, all that overly aggressive chanting of â€œUSA! USA!â€ gives me awful Republican-convention flashbacks. On the other handâ€¦
LOVE: The nationalism. Most attendees at this weekendâ€™s games have been permanent U.S. residents, many of whom have never set foot in the nations whose colors adorn their painted faces. The WBC games have enabled many thousands of first- and second-generation immigrants, from all around Latin America as well as East Asia, to celebrate their ethnic heritage and the heroes of their homelands during an event that could only come together in their adopted country. The effect was polarizing for many Team USA supporters in last nightâ€™s crowd, just as many gringos were incensed by the Mexican flags at pro-immigration rallies in L.A. last year. But the joy in these multi-culti crowds â€“ even among the Venezuelans as their team got pantsed by the Koreans on Saturday â€“ is truly a heartwarming spectacle, and I canâ€™t wait for the Koreans and Japanese to come out in full regalia tonight.
HATE: Three words â€“ Major. League. Baseball. Talk about your love/hate relationship with the WBC â€“ Bud Selig and his cadre of MLB owners canâ€™t seem to commit to the tournament, and one of these days theyâ€™re going to kill this thing that Selig pretends to be nurturing. The only question is whether theyâ€™ll do so purposely, because they canâ€™t stand the thought of their
multimillion-dollar commodities players getting injured during an exhibition sideshow; or by accident, because their ambivalence and neglect inevitably sap everyone elseâ€™s interest. The WBC will never approach its potential as long as the owners pressure their best players to avoid the WBC, and until more players recognize that â€“ no matter how it screws up their workout schedules â€“ a few weeks of playing for their countries will make more memories than yet another Grapefruit- or Cactus-League spring.
LOVE: Beisbol … been bery, bery good … to me! Itâ€™s a real treat â€“ a revelation, in fact — to watch the Korean and Japanese teams play the game in a style quite different from what weâ€™re used to in the U.S. These days we call it â€œsmall ball,â€ with some disparagement, as though moving baserunners from station to station and driving in runs with singles rather than homers is sissy stuff. But the Asian teams have been pitching well, playing error-free defense, and, in competition with their swing-for-the-fences counterparts, theyâ€™ve put a lot of runs on the board with line drives and stolen bases. And beyond the fact that theyâ€™re playing the game the right way, thereâ€™s a reason Japan won this tournament last time, and why either Japan or Korea will make an utterly deserving champion this time: These teams are playing like this tournament actually means something to them.
Tonight Iâ€™m rooting for the Koreans, mostly because I make it a point to cheer for the team with the fewest Major Leaguers. (Korea has only two.) Either way, Iâ€™m sure it will be one of the greatest times Iâ€™ll ever have in a ballpark, and Iâ€™ll leave the stadium looking forward to the next WBC in 2013. If you get a chance to look up from the wreckage of your NCAA brackets, you should tune in to ESPN at 9 p.m. Eastern/6 p.m. Pacific. It may be only March, but youâ€™ll see two teams playing baseball like they mean it.
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