World Baseball Classic — Day 1 — Tokyo
Having made seven or eight trips to Japan over the past three years, I know that the absolute worst part of the trip is the hour-plus ride in from Narita to downtown. After a 15-hour flight, a half-hour of circling the airport, a half-hour with customs, and a 14-hour time difference, the car trip in from the airport seems like it takes a week.
But the mood tonight is entirely different. After years of planning, debate, getting delayed a year because of a dispute between the owners and players in Japan last year (sound familiar?), the issues with whether Cuba would be in or out, the broadcast negotiations, and the thousands of details, the very first World Baseball Classic kicks off tomorrow morning at 11:30 Tokyo time. And while I am sure we have made mistakes, and will continue to have growing pains, there is a real sense of excitement about doing something new.
Two weeks ago there was a reception at the Japanese Embassy in D.C. to honor Hank Aaron and Sadaharu Oh. All anyone talked about that night, from the two ambassadors to George Will to the politicians that were there, was the World Baseball Classic. Tonight, at a pre-tournament party, Mr. Hitoshi Uchiyama, the President of the Yamiuri Shimbun, (host of the games in Tokyo and sponsor of the Tokyo Giants) said that from the formation of the Giants in 1934, the entire country has waited for this day where the best players from all around the world would compete in a tournament.
While I don’t go back that far, there is no question that the quality of play in Japan and all of Asia has improved dramatically over the last 20 years. On our last All-Star tour two years ago, MLB sent probably the best team it has ever sent to Japan and the Japanese All-Stars still won the first four games and only a sweep of the last five saved the day for the MLB team. The inclusion of teams like China, Japan, Korea and Cuba, which have mostly non-MLB players, adds an element of intrigue to the entire event. Can Cuba repeat the type of Olympic dominance it has demonstrated in the past now that it will be up against Major League players? Has Japanese baseball improved to the level of being able to beat the Major Leagues’ best?
A lot of people here are saying that the most important game in this first round robin is the very first game tomorrow morning between Korea and Chinese Taipei. Those handicappers must be assuming that Japan will sweep its three games and that China will lose its three, so tomorrow’s game will decide the second team to move on to the next round. I don’t think it will be that easy, although China lost an exhibition game badly yesterday here and Taipei, on the other hand, had a very close game. I think Korea can give Japan a run for its money Sunday night, and Jim Lefebvre has done a great job with the Chinese team.
It is too bad the Korea/Taipei game has to be tomorrow morning. It is the first game of the entire event and it starts Friday morning at 11:30 so no kids can come. It will have the smallest crowd of the entire tournament at any venue but it was all we could do with the schedule and trying to fit everything into two weeks.
Overall interest has been great. We have issued 3,500 media credentials, which is double the number issued for the World Series. We are on pace to draw over 800,000 fans, which for a first-time event exceeds our expectations, and is comparable to the number of tickets sold for the entire Winter Olympics. And while some players have decided not to participate who would clearly have made a difference, there are an awful lot of good players on board.
Not to be defensive, but I read some criticism about the possiblity of ties in the first two rounds, and how that lessens the event. Under the rules, and again given the time constraints, in the first two rounds, a game would be declared a tie after 14 innings and each team would get a half-win in the pool. The semifinals and finals in San Diego will be played to completion. Two points: First, given the round-robin format, it is likely that a tie for one of the teams would be the equivalent of a loss in determining who would move on. Second, in 2,400 games last season, there were three that went more than 14 innings. That is one every 800. Those aren’t bad odds.
Keep your fingers crossed that the games are good, and that no one gets hurt. While players get hurt during Spring Training, and in the offseason, injuries can put a damper on things. Otherwise, we’re under way.
Talk to you tomorrow. Oyasuminasai!