The “World Series” has perhaps become a bit of a misnomer. With the United States making a meager showing and a quick exit in the second round of the World Baseball Classic, the concept of a “world champion” has been challenged. In the wake of this event, several things have become clear about the international baseball scene. For one, throwing a pile of major league superstars together a few days before a tournament and hoping they perform is not a great strategy (to see more evidence of this, look no further than the Team USA basketball team in 2004). Secondly, any arrogance we may have had about being the best at our national pastime can be thrown out the window. Perhaps the most important realization for Americans, however, is that these other nations outperformed us not because of any intrinsic talent they had. They did so by playing with more passion, better teamwork, and solid fundamentals stemming from their tremendous work ethics.
For anyone who was surprised to see Japan in the final, remember that Japan has been playing baseball since the 19th century. In fact, some Japanese are convinced that their country invented the sport, just as some South American nations claim soccer as their own, despite its actual beginnings in England. The legendary Sadaharu Oh, who managed the Japanese team, has more career home runs in Japan (868) than Hank Aaron, the hallowed MLB record holder, had here (755). Moreover, the Japanese baseball work ethic has been on display in America ever since Ichiro Suzuki of the Seattle Mariners and later Hideki Matsui of the New York Yankees crossed the Pacific. The Mariners’ President of Operations in the Pacific Rim commented that Ichiro practices so frequently and with such passion that he can never find enough people to play catch with him. Not coincidentally, there was only one major leaguer left on the two teams playing for the WBC championship: Ichiro.
I focus on Japan for obvious reasons, but Korea made a big splash as well, with Seung Yeop Lee, Jong Beom Lee, and pitcher Chan Ho Park all making the All-Tournament team. To put that in perspective, they had three people on the twelve man all-tournament team, as did Japan; the U.S. only had two.
While interest may not have been as strong after the U.S. exited the World Baseball Classic, the message is clear: Asian nations, as well as the typically heralded South American and Caribbean countries like the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, and Cuba, can not only compete with us, but they can beat us. Perhaps this will lead to more recruitment of Asian players for the MLB. I also hope it shows Americans that at a time when the steroid scandal has stained our national pastime, the pure form of the game – relying on passion, teamwork, and fundamentals — is making a comeback overseas, and it is reaping dividends.