Monday, March 23, 2009

Uncle Sam's Funeral

The US was eliminated from the World Baseball Classic last night, beaten by a worthy team from Japan. Unfortunately, the metaphorical death of Uncle Sam was not marked with simply the appropriate (if one supports the US team, of course; if one roots for Japan, the appropriate response would be something else entirely) mixture of disappointment and kudos for Japan. Instead, a parade of wannabe Fred Phelpses from the mainstream media have descended to grind their axes and attempt to outsnark each other (and now I've given you my own ridiculous metaphor).

I usually try to avoid just taking someone else’s column and ripping it a new one:

1) It’s lazy
2) It grants credibility to opinions that should just be ignored and allowed to gently fade from memory
3) Other people can do it a lot better than I can--much better in fact

Nonetheless, sometimes it just feels good to get it all off your chest. So please excuse the rant I’m about to go on, and if you don’t want to read that sort of thing, by all means, stop now.

First up we have Tim Brown of Yahoo! Sports, in the dumbest column of them all:

The USA clearly has ideas about narrowing the gap. Just a little more pitching, an ounce more defense, maybe a tad more intuition from its field manager -- hey, these things take generations to build -- and the Americans might catch up. Perhaps by the next WBC. Or the one after that. Presumably, the U.S. team comported itself well enough to merit a return invitation.

And here you have exhibit A of snark. It’s not even clever; it’s heavy-handed and way over the top.

Alas, while the Americans have mastered the concepts of swinging hard, throwing hard and cashing large paychecks, they remain somewhat behind the world’s leading baseball federations in the game’s finer areas and for good reason, as USA designated hitter Jimmy Rollins pointed out. Japan’s players hit intelligently and situationally, and defend their positions with pride, and generally do not give an inch in any part of the game.

The accompanying quote from Jimmy Rollins certainly praises the Japanese team and their attention to detail. He also allows that the Japanese approach to the game is different than the American approach. But Brown has twisted it into a statement that American players don’t hit intelligently, don’t defend their positions with pride, and do “give an inch” (whatever the heck that even means) in some part of the game.

The Americans did not win, and for that they were unhappy. Yet, they might have understood deep down there was a greater good here. They perhaps set a path for another generation of American players, for the team that might very well stand with the great Japanese, the decorated Koreans. There is value in that. Someone had to be here first, for the next to follow, to hold open the door.

Perhaps on Monday night, were they to squint and tilt their heads just so, they could picture a team wearing red, white and blue uniforms, playing on that very field. Someday, maybe. Someday.

This level of snark should make the average poster at BTF blush.

Next up we have Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated:

Look at pregame practices. The Japanese run the baseball equivalent of a precise three-ring circus, with players taking groundballs and flyballs all over the yard at game speed. The Americans take a half-speed approach, and you'll almost never catch them taking pregame infield and outfield practice as a team.

There’s no doubt that the Japanese approach to practice is very much different than the American approach. This should not come as news to anyone. I’m sure there are things that Americans can take from Japanese baseball, and vice versa. But so much is being based on the result of two tournaments (more on this later).

Yes, baseball is the American pastime, but the United States once invented and popularized the automobile, too. Look at Detroit today and tell me it's still doing the car business better than Asia. Reputation alone is not a winning business model.

Verducci obviously went to the Obama School of History, where the car was invented by an American and not Europeans. And when pray tell is the last time Detroit had a better reputation than Japan for car manufacturing? Not in my lifetime. It’s just a ridiculous analogy on so many levels.

Then we have Mark Kriegle of Fox Sports:

The WBC -- an acronym shamelessly stolen from the equally shameless World Boxing Council

What a strange comment. As if three letter acronyms in which one of the words must be “baseball” and “world” is a strong contender for a second word must be individual, precious snowflakes.

If you're the country that claims baseball as its national pastime, it's [finishing third] an embarrassment.

This is reflective of the American arrogance about baseball. Baseball may be touted as our national pastime, but it would also have a strong claim to being the national pastime of Japan, let alone the Dominican Republic and Cuba and...If six countries claim baseball as their national pastime, are five of them automatically embarrassed anytime there is an international baseball competition?

The underachieving Dominicans, justly vanquished by the Netherlands, are shortchanging the fans, too. Where was Albert Pujols or Manny Ramirez?

I seem to recall Albert Pujols having an elbow injury of sorts, that might make him or his team cautious. But I’m just a blogger, not a columnist for a major national website, so my memory is probably off.

Judging from Sunday, however, you'd get a lot of argument [about whether MLB represents the world’s best baseball]. I know it's not football. I know one game is just one game, and that the best of baseball teams win but sixty percent of the time. Still, the Americans were embarrassed last night.

He blatantly contradicts his reasonable statement in the third sentence in his fourth, without any attempt to explain why this one game was so embarrassing. But the very next paragraph makes it even funnier:

Davey Johnson leaves Roy Oswalt in to get batted around as if it were spring training. Team USA committed three errors and allowed four unearned runs.

One contention made by many columnists that I do not dispute at all is that Davey Johnson and staff did not approach the games with the urgency that many other countries did. Depending on your view of how important the WBC is vis-à-vis the regular season, you may applaud or condemn this (I am somewhat ambivalent, myself). But Kreigle uses bad managerial decisions in the WBC as evidence that MLB is not the pinnacle of the sport. Huh?

For the record, the crowd of 43,630 was very respectable for Dodger Stadium on an unseasonably cold night in March. But don't expect an encore -- not until America's pastime means as much to Americans as it does to the rest of the world.

Game results don’t perfectly reflect passion (in fact, that would be an even more appropriate reminder had the United States won). And this silly provincialism about baseball as “America’s game” is simultaneously arrogant and ignorant. Yes, baseball as we know it was founded and largely developed in America. But it has now been adopted by many other people around the world. If the media of the United States is going to demand a victory in every tournament simply because the game as we know it originated here, then they will never be content.

The fact of the matter is that Japan has advanced to the WBC Final twice, and it is well-deserved. But taking that fact and using it to extrapolate wildly about the quality of and passion for baseball in the two countries, and the effectiveness of training techniques, is unjustified. It simply is too small of a sample size in too limited of an event to draw any sweeping conclusions.

If Japanese baseball was superior, then we would rightfully expect players from Japan to perform better in the US than they did in Japan, and American refugees to perform worse. But of course the opposite is true; the evidence suggests that the NPB is a strong league, yet clearly inferior to MLB. Yet so many want to chuck the many thousands of PAs and innings available for comparison in favor of a few games played over a three-year span.

If small sample size tournaments are your thing, though, how about the Olympics? The Japanese Olympic team was not as strong as the Japanese WBC team--it obviously featured no major league players, but every player was with an NPB organization and it included multiple players on the WBC team--including Yu Darvish, Toshiya Sugiuchi, Atsunori Inaba, Norichika Aoki, and Hiroyuki Nakajima. This team lost twice to the United States’ collection of minor leaguers and one college phenom, including once in the bronze medal game.

Does this prove that the Japanese big leaguers should be signing up for the Dexter Fowler School of Yakyu? No, of course not.

It might be uncouth to continue, lest it seem I am bitter about Japan’s victory over the US. Not in the slightest: Japan is a country with a deep and rich baseball history, with passionate fans and excellent players (as every American fan has seen for himself through the performance of Japanese major leaguers). They are clearly one of the top baseball nations in the world, and it is no surprise to me that their WBC team is consistently a top contender.

But the claim that Japan has run roughshod over teams of Western major leaguers is just not true. There are really only four WBC teams which feature major leaguers at just about every important position: the US, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, and Puerto Rico. There are also two teams with a high percentage of big leaguers at key positions: Canada and Mexico. The other Western teams have a limited number of major leaguers as in the case of Panama or none whatsoever (although in the case of Cuba, they certainly have players who could be major leaguers were it not for political conditions).

Given the way the WBC is structured, Japan has faced precious few teams comprised largely of major leaguers. In each WBC, Japan has opened up against Asian opponents. In the second round in 2006, they faced Korea again, plus Mexico and the United States. They beat Mexico but lost to the US. In the semifinals, they had a repeat engagement with Korea, then beat Cuba for the world title. So they faced just two Western teams with major leaguers and went 1-1.

Again in 2009, they advanced through the Asian pool. In the second round, they faced Cuba and Korea twice each. So in this WBC, Japan will play only one game against a Western team with any major leaguers whatsoever--last night’s game with the United States.

Whichever team wins the title tonight will deserve it, and it will be a great achievement for that baseball program and its players. Pointing out that they have not done it by steamrolling MLB all-star teams is not an attempt to rain on that parade; it is just an attempt to inject a little perspective into a media meltdown.


  1. It's simple. We got spanked by teams that cared more about it than the American players did.

    Remember, those jerks need to dramatize every event in order to sell advertising space. Bloggers get to tell the truth.

  2. Very interesting post!! I really like it and much appreciated......
    I am so glad with your nice comments.


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