A Final Take On the WBC: Remember When Baseball Was America's Game?

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A Final Take On the WBC: Remember When Baseball Was America's Game?

Both the official Opening Day and the one where the bulk of Major League Baseball actually plays are about done.

As I write this, only the Seattle Mariners, Minnesota Twins, Oakland Athletics, and Anaheim Angles are still settling matters. The rest are in the books or set to break the seal on the 2009 campaign tomorrow (my beloved San Francisco Giants included).

Before the 162-game smile really takes hold, I want to reflect one last time on the World Baseball Classic.

Not so much the actual nuts and bolts of the '09 tournament, although I will point out Japan won for the second consecutive Classic. 

The Koreans pushed the Japanese champions to the edge in a thrilling extra inning affair that saw them tie the finale with two outs in the bottom of the ninth against Japan's closer.

Remember that the Japanese team has emerged triumphantly from both WBCs to date and Korea pushed them to the edge in '09 (after finishing third in the inaugural WBC).

Because more than this year's tournament, I want to talk about this false notion circulating baseball circles that the United States of America—its team and fans—must care more about losing for the Classic to survive.

Mike Vaccaro of the New York Post is not the only journalist to endorse the idea and it's not an insane one—far from it. 

As the country that supposedly invented the game and certainly the one that perfected/popularized baseball, it would be an enormous help to the World Baseball Classic if America took a more spirited interest in it.

I actually think the players were taking it pretty seriously and badly wanted to win.  I also think the American fans are coming around to it. Slowly.

More importantly, I believe such an interest is far from necessary to the WBC's survival and it's pretty arrogant to argue otherwise.

In his piece, Vaccaro (with tongue firmly in cheek) apologizes if he sounds like an "ugly American," then proceeds to duck behind the truth as his justification. Unfortunately, his sentiment is far from the truth. It is his opinion and he is entitled to it.

But neither Vaccaro nor anyone else is entitled to pass his or her opinion off as the truth. Someone get the memo to Rush Limbaugh.

No surprise—I vehemently disagree with the swelling and vocal horde of which Vaccaro is an apparently proud member.

The simple approach would be to rebut the argument with the lustily engaged crowd of Japanese and Korean fans that watched the final game in Los Angeles this year. Then to follow that up with the equally psychotic supporters of the Latin American countries who packed los estadios in the preliminary rounds.

Finally, I could put a bow on the argument using the clear progress of countries like South Africa, Australia, and the Netherlands as evidenced by their play on the field. 

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't recall a great many South African or Australian ballplayers littered throughout the game's history.

I know Aruba, Curacao, and the rest of the Netherlands Antilles are Dutch territories, but a lot of those kids hailed from Holland so you can't totally dismiss baseball's growth in Europe.

The obvious growth of baseball outside America as shown on the field during the 2009 WBC would be the easy route, but who wants to take that?

Let's follow Robert Frost down the winding path.

Just how wrong Vaccaro and his crowd crystallized when I was watching Mr. Baseball one hungover Saturday morning.

For those of you who don't know—which should be a fair number if there's a benevolent God—this is a two-hour romp through Japanese baseball circa 1992 as seen through the eyes of Tom Selleck.

Magnum P.I. plays a former American star who's playing overseas as a ladder back to the Show.

It's actually an entertaining movie provided you (A) love baseball; (B) enjoy Selleck as any fan of Magnum should; (C) love Major League although I guess 24 would suffice since Dennis Haysbert figures prominently in both; and (D) LOVE baseball.

The movie is nothing if not cheesy and predictable, but I promise you it's better than your average contemporary movie and there's even a love story so you can use that as a selling point to avoid the perils presented by, say, Sex and the City (now available on DVD, woohoo).

While I was enjoying the flick, I wondered why I had never watched it in the 17 years since it had been released. As I alluded to above, I was a big fan of Magnum so I knew of the movie's existence and had run across it several times over the years. Yet I never stuck with it.

There are probably a whole host of reasons, but I settled on one biggie: the idea of watching a baseball movie set in Japan seemed ridiculous to me in 1992 and subsequent years.

In 2009?  Absolutely not.

Even more significantly, the success of the two Asian teams in the WBC and various players in the Bigs has eliminated the need for any suspension of disbelief when watching a baseball move set in 1992 Japan.

There's no way Ichiro Suzuki, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Akinori Iwamura, Hideki Matsui, Hideki Okajima, Takashi Saito, Kazuo Matsui, Keiichi Yabu, Hiroki Kuroda, Hideo Nomo, Kazuhiro Sasaki, Shigetoshi Hasegawa, Akinori Otsuka, and the other successful Japanese players came outta nowhere.

The Japanese professional leagues must have been much stronger than most Americans, myself included, imagined even back in the early '90s. Probably earlier.

Other countries are apparently following the example set by the Land of the Rising Son.  Some have already achieved notable success.

Today, whether Vaccaro or anyone else under the Stars and Bars acknowledges it, the global perception of baseball as America's territory is long gone. I realized that's not even my perception any more.

Rightly so.

Japan has taken the first two World Baseball Classics.

Korea's finished second and third while wearing the 2008 Olympic Gold Medal.

Cuba has been a juggernaut on the international landscape for years, owning the most Olympic gold and boasting the other second place finish in WBC play.

Many (one could argue most) of the best players in the Show came to American soil specifically to play in the Bigs—they were not born here. And the international cachet of the game seems to have grown since the last WBC.

The US attacked that one with even more nonchalance that in '09—the indifference doesn't seem to have damaged baseball's popularity in the interim.

Zoom out so the picture includes more than merely the sport of baseball, and you'll see an entire world where national boundaries are dissolving. In some places, they are only lines on a map with little other significance.

Increased utilization of the Internet, widening bandwidths, on-chip cache memory, and faster processors have turned cyberspace into a one-stop entertainment free-for-all where your particular location and that of your target distraction are irrelevant.

You don't need a satellite dish or an elaborate cable package. You don't have to wait for an event on native turf or travel to foreign lands.

All you need is online access (sometimes a credit card) and you can follow whatever, whenever, wherever.

People all over the world are watching our (in the adopted sense) pros move the pearl around the diamond. Consequently, it's inspiring athletically gifted kids from all regions to grab some leather and a bat. You're already seeing the results.

And I bet the American pros noticed.

After having their rears handed to them in consecutive Classics, one would hope they've received the none-too-subtle message.

I bet you'll see them ratchet the intensity up another level in 2013. We've already seen the fellas motivated by the inaugural failure in '06 and it took several international embarrassments before the National Basketball Associations reps got their act together enough to reestablish USA's dominance over basketball.

Why should baseball be any different?

Regardless of whether Team USA and its fans take more pride in the next tournament, the World Baseball Classic will be just fine because the world-wide popularity of the game is rising.

A lot of talent has emerged from the fertile grounds of international appeal and the WBC has become its premier showcase. And the rest of the baseball-watching world—a world no longer primarily American—is diggin' it.

We should be, too.

Not because we're necessary, but because it's exciting and a damn fine caliber of baseball.

And, as it turns out, these other countries can teach us a thing or two about our own game.

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