WBC closes on a thrilling note

LOS ANGELES – This baseball tournament is far from perfect.

All the little complaints have merit – too few games over too long a period, too many teams that can’t play, minimal U.S. interest (players/fans), ridiculously high ticket prices, pointless seeding games, Team Mexico’s uniforms.

But any format that put Japan and Korea on that field for four hours Monday night, the ballpark close to full and frantically loud, the players getting after it so hard they practically had tears streaming down their faces, it just can’t be all wrong.

Generally speaking, American sports fans, as a face-painted group, we hate anything we don’t understand or aren’t good at. And the only thing we hate more than those two things is change. We’re not much on the international baseball front, it turns out, but we’re world champions of the narrow view.

Mark Teixeira and CC Sabathia and Ryan Howard won’t play in it, so the World Baseball Classic must not be worthwhile. Our guys aren’t in regular-season form, so there can’t be any sense or validity to it.

But stand amid the Koreans and Japanese at Dodger Stadium, amid the songs and costumes and flags and tension, stand amid the baseball soaked in nationalism, and know this wasn’t about us or our place in it.

It was about the baseball.

“I don’t know if it’s a struggle,” MLB senior vice president Paul Archey said of convincing the U.S. this is something worth its time. “It’s a challenge. But, look, it’s March, the major league season hasn’t even started and we’ve got 50,000 here.”

Team USA, again, wasn’t part of the 50 grand. Maybe in four years.

“It would help,” Archey said. “It would help interest if they were playing tonight, sure.”

Instead, Japan beat Korea, the last Olympic champion, in 10 spirited, remarkable, grinding innings, giving it back-to-back WBC titles.

More than 54,000 people attended (and nearly 142,000 for the three games in L.A.) The stadium filled as the game went on, a reverse Dodgers effect, if you will, as if word of a truly great baseball game had spread among the vast Asian-American communities here, bringing people from their living rooms to the right-field bleachers mid-evening.

Four years from now, the tournament will look different. They’ll almost certainly condense the schedule. They could play games in Cuba, or the Dominican Republic, or South Korea. There’s talk about expanding the field to 24 teams (if so, a lot of countries need to get better at baseball, fast), and introducing a play-in aspect to the front end of the tournament. Some in the commissioner’s office and players’ union like the notion of holding the event in one city over, say, 10 or 12 days.

But for the moment, seven venues over three weeks put a bat in Ichiro Suzuki’s hands with two out and two runners on in the 10th inning. First base was open. Korea manager In Sik Kim pitched to Ichiro.

An original field of 16 teams put Korea right-hander Chang Yong Lim on the mound, already seven pitches in against Ichiro. Earlier in the at-bat, Ichiro had fouled four consecutive pitches. He was gaining, clearly.

The stories of the Netherlands winning twice in Puerto Rico, and David Wright’s flare falling in Miami, and Cuba’s historic losses in San Diego, and of four prior Japan-Korea matchups, had led here, to a Korea run that tied the score with two out in the ninth inning, and then this, Ichiro ripping a splitter into center field, two runners sprinting home, at exactly 2:23 p.m. in Tokyo.

A half-inning later, when he’d thrown a slider past Keun Woo Jeong, young Yu Darvish threw his arms in the air. His teammates, 5-3 winners, closed around him. Half the crowd, the half that didn’t bury its head in its hands, chanted for its hero, who’d hit .211 in Japan’s first eight games then had four hits in the final.

“Ee-chee-RO!” the people cried. “Ee-chee-RO!”

Soon, Bud Selig and Don Fehr stood side by side, hanging gold medals around Japanese necks. Selig grabbed Ichiro by his shoulders and gave him a friendly, happy shake.

“When you look back on why we did this, it’s working out even better, frankly, than I thought five or six years ago,” Selig had said. “I’m very, very satisfied. … I’m telling you, it’s working.”

There’s something else at work here, of course. We have a natural suspicion about anything pushed this hard. Anything we’re not allowed to like or dislike without fear of public trampling, well, we’ll typically err on the side of cynicism.

So, no, it’s not ideal. It’s no World Cup. It’s no World Series. It’s no Yankees-Red Sox in September. And it certainly won’t be here, maybe not ever. But there is value to it, rating somewhere between spring exhibition and global domination, depending on your view. It’s a bunch of baseball games, some of them very good, one of them – the last one – worth all that preceded it, four hours well spent.

“Well,” Japan manager Tatsunori Hara said, “we represented Japan. Since the team has been formed, it’s been more than a month. Day by day, the team evolved. Today, tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, that way we re-evolved and got stronger.

“I believe that base hit is something that I will never forget. It’s an image that will forever be imprinted in my mind.”

That’s something, right?

Tim Brown is a national baseball writer for Yahoo! Sports. He co-authored with Jim Abbott the memoir “Imperfect: an Improbable Life”.   Follow him on Twitter.   Send Tim a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Tuesday, Mar 24, 2009