International Baseball could not have asked for a better game than the finale of the Asia Pool tonight. Before a noisy crowd of over 40,000, which included a rare public appearance by His Imperial HIghness the Crown Prince Naruhito and the Crown Princess Masako, visiting Korea beat Japan in an intense, well-played game, 3-2. Although the game was played only for bragging rights, since each team moves on to the second round in Anaheim next week, the participating teams put to rest any idea that these games would be played as exhibitions and not full out.
Nowhere was that more present than in the key fourth inning. Two plays in the bottom of that inning probably turned the game around. Japan was already leading, 2-0, and threatening to blow the game open. First, Korea’s shortstop threw out Japan’s Iwamura trying to score on a ground ball. What was remarkable is that Iwamura tried to bowl over the Korea catcher Cho, In Sung, a play not generally seen in professional baseball as it is played in Japan. For the final out of the inning, with the bases loaded, Korean righfielder Lee, Jim Young made a diving catch on a ball hooking away from him to save three runs from scoring. And in a dramatic climax to the round robin, Chan Ho Park got Ichiro to pop up for the final out of the game, preserving the one run victory for Korea, which will now open up the second round in Anaheim facing the Pool B (US, Canada, Mexico, South Africa) runner-up next Sunday.
The appearance of the Crown Prince had been rumored all weekend, although public sightings are not commonplace. He attended one of the opening games between the Mets and Cubs in 2000 at the start of that season, but has not attended any of the All-Star Tour games that have taken place before or since. His appearance, along with the Commissioner of Nippon Professional Baseball, the former Commissioner of NP, and the Chairman of Yomiuri Holdings, at the game underscored its importance here in Japan.
Fan behavior here is significantly different from a game in the States. Here, the fans never boo, and never vocalize as individuals. There are organized cheers for every player, and organized Thunder Stixx slapping or rattle shaking for every strike or out or hit. The large but obviously outmanned Korean fan section carried on their cheering loudly throughout the entire game. Polite applause greets every out or good defensive play. In an atypical occurence, the loudest noise came when Ichiro was hit by a pitch in the sixth inning, although it was more of a drone than a yell. Neither the players nor the managers nor the fans react overtly to any call of an umpire, although there did not appear much to complain about on that front through any of these games.
I mentioned the Lou Gehrig glove that Ambassador Schieffer keeps on display at the U.S. Embassy and today I have posted a picture (right). The glove was manufactured by Mizuno and presented to Gehrig during a 1934 barnstorming tour. He brought it back to the States and apparently used it for some games in 1935. It is on loan to the Embassy from the National Baseball Hall of Fame and was recently refurbished by Mizuno after 70 years. Imagine trying to scoop up errant throws from infielders with that glove.
I thought of the recently deceased Vic Power when I saw the glove and how hard it would have been for even him to make flashy catches with a glove like that. I am sure I thought of him both because he was such a slick fielder but also given the participation of his native Cuba in the Classic.
All segments of Baseball were well represented in Tokyo. In addition to the Japanese executives I mentioned above, Commissioner Shin, the new Commissioner of the KBO, came and watched his tenure get off to a good start in international competition. Aldo Notari, President of the International Baseball Federation was on hand along with Miguel Ortin, the Executive Vice-President. From the U.S., Chuck Armstrong (right) of the Seattle Mariners, and MLB’s International Committee watched all of the games.
Gene Orza of the Players Association who has spent more than full-time on this event for months was here as a member of the Technical Committee along with his colleagues Phil Bradley and Steve Rogers. MLB had Sandy Alderson of the Padres, Chairman of the Technical Committee, EVP John McHale, another member of the Technical Committee and Paul Archey, Senior Vice President, International, and the person most responsible for putting together all of the logistics and commercial aspects of the entire tournament. And I would be remiss if I did not mention the sponsorship and organization skills of host Yomiuri, which has been a staunch supporter of international baseball for years, and the great and supportive MLB organization in Japan led by Jim Small, Senior Vice-President along with Sami Kawakami, Darrick Thomas, and Hiroko Kato. They all made everyone’s lives much easier given the number of games in such a short period. And Tommy Lasorda continued his role as Ambassador-at-Large for the Classic with his boundless energy and enthusiasm.
Overall, the first round-robin was a success. There were no real competitive surprises. Attendance for the six games exceeded 100,000. The Japanese games were well-attended, the non-Japan games much less so, perhaps because the China and Taipei teams were not as competitive. We do not have television ratings yet, but I would guess the game tonight did very well in both Korea and Japan. The 14-to-17 hour time difference in the States no doubt will keep the ratings for these games there low. The games were well-played, the players were well-conditioned, and the pitch counts did not seem to have an overall impact. The winners of Pool B will have their hands full next week facing rested Korea and Japan teams.
On to Orlando, and the remaining Round 1 venues. The Venezuela-Dominican Republic game Tuesday to lead off the Orlando Pool should be every bit as good as tonight’s finale.