A True World Series
How are the results of the 2006 World Baseball Classic indicative of larger global trends and issues?
Who could have predicted that young teams from Mexico and Canada would beat the United States at what is widely considered to be the quintessential American sport? Was this an unanticipated consequence of the emerging "NAFTA community?"
Team USA's struggles were one of the many ironies of a tournament that saw Japan and Korea embarrass a young China team. It also saw an underpaid Cuban team consistently outperform Major League millionaires.
And the tournament featured a reinvigorated Japan team, which — in an apparent echo of the country's long-overdue economic resurgence — led an Asian baseball ascendance.
Team Korea was the surprise of the tournament, posting a 6-1 record behind outstanding pitching and flawless defense. It managed to beat the Japanese team twice, the first time in Tokyo in front of Japan's royal family.
The Koreans finally ran out of gas when Japan beat its regional nemesis in a semi-final rematch before going on to defeat Cuba (10-6) in a memorable finale.
One clear lesson for Team USA emerged from its poor showing against the Asian teams: It can no longer rely on reputation, brute strength and the fear factor to compete internationally.
Both the Japanese and Korean teams consistently outperformed their Western Hemisphere rivals by mastering the fundamentals — and displaying speed, finesse and the occasional burst of power. We should hope the North Korean military was not watching the tournament and taking any encouragement from the outcome.
Another lesson from the tournament is that baseball has become just another battlefield in the global competition for talent. Countries like the Dominican Republic, Panama and Venezuela continue to send talented young players to the United States, where many have become big stars.
This has, in turn, fueled more dreams of million-dollar contracts and driven more youngsters into the Latin baseball pipeline. Even Japan has begun to export an increasing number of players to the United States in recent years.
It was, therefore, somewhat surprising that the tournament's championship game featured only two professionals who have played in the United States — Ichiro Suzuki, the Japanese megastar who had two hits in the final, and his teammate Akinori Otsuka, who plays for the Texas Rangers, and struck out the final two batters to end the game and nail down the championship.
This may reflect a growing pool of baseball talent that now chooses to compete outside of the United States. It may also mean that American scouts continue to under-value international talent — at their own peril.
Of course, in the Cuban case, players don't quite enjoy free movement of baseball labor. A sizeable number of Cuba's best players have defected in recent years and found their way into U.S. leagues.
Many more, however, are thought to aspire to the majors, but ultimately choose to remain in Cuba in order to protect their families. It was no surprise, therefore, that political freedom became a small side-story of Cuba's participation.
The most overt political controversy of the tournament centered on the right of spectators to display anti-Castro signs at Cuba games. Out of deference to their Cuban guests, the tournament organizers cracked down on such signs, which the Cuban team called propaganda.
Of course, no one could stop Team Cuba's spokesman from delivering a steady stream of commentary about the team ethic of his players and the selfish, greed-driven motivations of players in the United States.
Fortunately, this brief bit of politics was overshadowed by large, passionate crowds and a larger than expected viewing audience for the tournament. Almost 800,000 fans attended the 39 games.
The fans of Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Korea, and Japan traveled thousands of miles (many from within the United States) to see the four semi-finalists play in San Diego.
Having observed the final weekend of competition in person, I can report that the World Baseball Classic became a three-week celebration of a game that, somewhat surprisingly, has truly gone global. While displays of the flag (including face-paint) were frequent, most fans put politics aside in order to enjoy a favorite pastime.
It was heartening to see fans from many nations cheer heartily for players they had never heard of — and even dance to some national music one would never hear at a U.S. ballgame.
Whether baseball will be known as “America's pastime” much longer is just one of the many questions raised by the tournament, which lived up to its billing as the beginning of a true classic. An encore is already planned for 2009 — and every four years after that.