Team Japan is doing its thing once again at the World Baseball Classic. The squad has made it to the championship round, and a third straight WBC championship would put Japan in a prime position to send the good old U.S. of A. a message.
That message would be something along the lines of, "Um, about this whole 'national pastime' thing..."
Yeah, yeah. We're not there yet. Team USA got off to a rocky start in the Classic against Mexico but since then has scored resounding victories against Italy, Canada and Puerto Rico. The 'Mericans look like they have a shot against a loaded Dominican Republic team on Thursday, especially if David Wright continues to play the part of Captain America better than Chris Evans.
But if the narrative goes the way it's gone in the past, Team USA will bow out with a whimper, and Team Japan will go on to win the whole shebang. Two WBC victories don't equal a trend, but that's the direction Team Japan is headed, and it knows the way.
If America does go home empty-handed and Japan wins again, the big picture will be mighty interesting. Interesting enough to make one ponder exactly where America stands in the grand scheme of baseball on this planet.
One thing that's been obvious in past WBC years and is obvious again this year is that America's love for baseball is not unconditional. On one hand, there's a sense that the Classic is irrelevant and only worth watching in passing, if at all. On the other, there's a sense that the Classic is not irrelevant, but that it's little more than a nice way to pass the time until Opening Day.
There are no such sentiments in Japan. Japan is watching, and Japan gives a damn.
Here's Ken Rosenthal of FoxSports.com:
MLB: One-third of all TVs in Japan were turned to WBC for three first-round games, topping 2012 Summer Olympics.— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) March 8, 2013
While those of us here in America are busy griping about everything that's awkward about the World Baseball Classic, including its seclusion to the MLB Network, Japan is treating it like a royal wedding featuring a surprise appearance by The Beatles.
Since the fans in Japan care, it's no wonder that the team cares. That much is obvious now by the way in which Japan has played so far in the tournament, but really it was apparent at the outset of the tournament when Team USA manager Joe Torre and Team Japan manager Koji Yamamoto were discussing their perspectives of the tournament.
Torre? He was worried about his players finding a competitive edge at a time when they usually don't need one to make it through spring training, according to CBC.ca.
“I told them to get themselves into the best physical and mental condition as possible for the first game,” he said, via The New York Times, “and then fight with real spirit.”
From the looks of things, they listened.
With respect to Team USA, the squad doesn't look like it's just going through the motions. There's passion there. The trouble is that there's a natural ceiling for this passion. It can only go so high a) because there's little pressure from the fans to do right by the red, white and blue and b) because the players themselves don't have much to motivate them beyond patriotism.
It all comes down to a familiar refrain.
“I don’t think we have to prove anything,” said second baseman Brandon Phillips to Jon Morosi of FoxSports.com. “I just think we need to go out and play the game. It’s America’s pastime."
You hear the same thing from the WBC skeptics, whose reasoning is that America is beyond firmly cemented the world's top baseball country, and that it's going to take a lot more than some silly little tournament to prove otherwise.
Sit down and actually think, and you'll realize that sentiment is only valid to a degree.
Nobody can argue that America isn't a more prolific factory of baseball talent than Japan. This country is far bigger last I checked, and with so many kids playing ball, there's bound to always be a steady stream of stars feeding into Major League Baseball. Ever has it been, so shall it ever be.
But you have to keep in mind that MLB isn't just comprised of Americans. According to a 2012 AP report, foreign-born players made up over 28 percent of players on Opening Day rosters last year. The question is how many of those 72-ish percent of American-born players are stars once you weed out the Steve Clevengers, Brent Lillibridges, Jake Arrietas and Justin Germanos.
You're down to what? Maybe 50 percent? Enough for a 15- or 16-team league rather than a 30-team league? Whatever the number, you don't have much of a league if you take the foreign-born players out of Major League Baseball.
It's different in the Nippon Professional Baseball league. The gaijin are there, but there are limits to how many a team can carry. With a few exceptions, the league is all Japanese, which gives the competition a certain kind of purity.
The perception, according to Ben Lindbergh of Baseball Prospectus, is that the competition level in NPB is somewhere between Triple-A and the majors here. In other words, Quadruple-A. This is a perception that withstands the crossover test, as many a Japanese player has flamed out in MLB, thus confirming any suspicion that legit stars are few and far between among Japanese baseballers.
However, this perception doesn't apply to the World Baseball Classic. It's not individual Japanese players against the best from all around the world all at once. It's a whole team of Japan's best against each country's best one team at a time, which is not as threatening as all at once. The playing field is much more level, and it's saying something that Japan has owned it twice and is on its way to owning it a third time.
And as much as Americans want to complain about this year's Team USA squad not being even remotely close to as good as it could be, at least it has actual major league stars. Team Japan doesn't have any major league stars, or any major leaguers at all for that matter.
Nope, not one. Ichiro Suzuki, Norichika Aoki, Yu Darvish, Hiroki Kuroda, Hisashi Iwakuma and Daisuke Matsuzaka—the two-time WBC MVP—are all noticeably absent. If the scouts are correct, then a bunch of Quadruple-A players are looking like a legit threat to win a tournament consisting of some of the best players in the world.
Excuses will be made if this happens. The timing is awkward, they'll say. Team USA's roster (and all others) were weak, they'll say. It doesn't matter, they'll say.
But then there will be the reality staring everyone right in the face: three in a row, and Japan didn't even need a single major leaguer to win the third.
Instead of calling it a fluke, we might as well treat it for what it is: proof that America's ownership of the baseball world is not as strong as we think it is. One is not definitive proof. Neither is two. But three is hard to argue. Three would hold up in court.
If Japan wins a third straight WBC title, America will still be able to claim the whole national pastime thing. We'll still have the more prolific baseball factory, and we'll also have the fact that, shoot, baseball has always been our national pastime.
But my guess is that Japan will put its hardware against America's reputation any day of the week.
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