No ordinary holiday

Jeff Passan
Yahoo! Sports

SAN DIEGO – No one had to fake sickness Tuesday morning in Japan. For weeks, men woke up with mysterious stomach aches and children tried the faux-fever trick of sticking thermometers in hot water. Like work or school mattered when Japan was playing in the World Baseball Classic.

Just so happens that the tournament's final fell on Shunbun no Hi, a national holiday the Japanese celebrate on the vernal equinox. Chicanery was unnecessary. They simply could sit back and watch their countrymen – their team – assert itself as the best in the world.

And how good that felt. Japan defeated mighty Cuba 10-6 on Monday night in San Diego, and then the players waved their nation's flag amid flurries of confetti. Then they retreated to the clubhouse for a 70-bottle champagne shower, where their legendary manager, Sadaharu Oh, tipped his hat to his players, among them the incomparable Ichiro Suzuki, who told his teammates, "You have to respect the old guy," which prompted them to start chanting "I-chi-ro!"

Finally, after all that, the coup de grace: Bold words to make the people back at home, gathered with their families for the holiday, even prouder.

"This," Ichiro said, "is probably the biggest moment of my baseball career."

Four days earlier, Japan readied itself to hop a plane home. It had lost two of three games in the second round, and the United States only needed to beat Mexico to advance. Of course, Team USA lost, Japan avenged a pair of losses to Korea and, for only the fifth time in 38 major international games, beat Cuba.

"Before the game with the United States and Mexico, I didn't know what to expect," said Texas Rangers reliever Akinori Otsuka, who closed the last two games for Japan. "To be honest, I am surprised we're here tonight."

The first inning showed they belonged. Japan chased Cuba starter Ormari Romero after four batters and scored four runs in the inning. Chants of "Nippon!" and "Banzai!" radiated from pockets of fans around Petco Park, ones that repeated themselves throughout the night.

It was a game with everything. Kosuke Fukudome cracked the signature hit, a two-run single in the ninth inning that put Japan ahead 9-5 and buried Cuba. Earlier in the inning, Munenori Kawasaki slid his hand between Ariel Pestano's legs to nick home plate and score the first run of the inning. Japan tried its best to keep Cuba in the game with three errors.

And, naturally, it wouldn't be an important game in the WBC if Bob Davidson didn't blow a call, which he did by ruling Kawasaki out on a bang-bang play at first base.

Kawasaki twisted his face in pain at the signal of the out, just as Tsuyoshi Nishioka contorted his with joy when his bunt single started the four-run ninth. Ichiro had spoken about how he wished the Japanese played with the fire of the Americans, and, for one night at least, they heeded his word.

"Because it was the first tournament," Fukudome said, "it's very powerful."

For 70 years, the Japanese have played professional baseball, and it's easy to imagine they play today like they did then. To see a team of major league-caliber players taking true infield practice was like watching Bill Gates hack away at a typewriter.

Japan is mindful and respectful of the past, and teachers of the game have not let it get homogenized like in the United States. There, a swing is a unique expression, a style fashioned by years of practice, and not something taught in 15 minutes by a Tom Emanski video.

The Japanese were the perfect team to win this tournament. Cuba would have been a better story, sure, and the United States would have been better for business. But for pure baseball, the kind that we'd love to have back in the major leagues, Japan delivered, and Japan deserved.

"I was going to feel a lot of pressure as this is something you would not be able to purchase," said Daisuke Matsuzaka, the tournament MVP who gave up one run in four innings, "but I did not feel much of it once I got up on the mound."

Much like the last time Japan faced Cuba, in the 2004 Olympics, Matsuzaka dominated. Cuba had no answer, other than to use eight pitchers, which seemed to be manager Higinio Velez's strategy for keeping the crowd of 42,696 bored.

Watching Velez manage, I wanted to defect to Mexico.

The temptation ceded as the game progressed. Baseball brought out all of its pomp, from a blow-up globe that made the opening ceremony garish in an Olympic sort of way to the presentation of the Tiffany-rendered trophy. Japanese players tossed Oh up and down three times, their hip-hip-hooray, and they posed for photos with gold medals around their necks.

Commissioner Bud Selig and union leader Don Fehr worked in concert presenting the medals to the players, and while the Japanese mugged for the cameras, Selig grabbed a microphone that was piped into the stadium's public-address system.

"Congratulations," he said. "You are the champions."

Some of them raised their fists, and others smiled. More than 5,000 miles away, they rejoiced, too, for their holiday sparing them another lie and, most of all, for their team.

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