Not too many years ago the idea of watching Red China play baseball against Japan by satellite in real time would have seemed like science fiction. A lot of sports writers would have loved to live to see this day.
The shocker was how seamlessly and technically perfect the Chinese team played. Directed by American manager Terry Collins, these superb athletes have mastered all the fundamentals of the game. As the game progressed the Chinese defensive fielding, throwing and running skills were evident, though their pitching and hitting fell woefully short of matching Japan's powerhouse machine. Particularly notable was the Chinese shortstop, Ray Chang, an American of Chinese parentage who besides being a player is also a trainer on the Chinese coaching staff. Chang, who plays in the Pirates farm system, stood out for his fielding talent, catching a Japanese runner at home plate and another at third for two particularly notable plays as well as setting up some other outstanding infield action.
When you consider the comedic aspect that inevitably must have occurred in teaching baseball to a group of athletes coming from a country of 1.3 billion people where 99.9% of the inhabitants wouldn't know a baseball from a pineapple chicken, the magnitude of the achievement of fielding such a fine team is all the more powerful. China has the notable achievement of having beat the renowned Taiwan team at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and came close to beating an overwhelming favorite, South Korea, at the first World Baseball Classic in 2006.
As with any international sports tournament involving professional players, there are bound to be distortions and contradictions involving the interests of team owners and international politics. Neither Japan nor the U.S. will be fielding their best teams because of the concerns of owners, who are concerned about degrading their resources in advance of the regular season. The perils of power politics are also painfully apparent. Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez complained loudly that American team owners were discouraging players of his country's nationality from participating under its colors. Add to this the fact that many players are having a problem determining which country they should represent. Guys like Mike Piazza, who played for the Italian team in 2006 despite not knowing the difference between dolce and vita, or Americans with names that they didn't even know to be Dutch who have been enticed into playing on the Netherlands team are just two hilarious examples. The terrorist attack in Pakistan this week on the Sri Lankan cricket team, where eight Pakistani security personnel were murdered in a bomb attack and machine gun fusillade by Muslim extremists, only adds to the sinister uncertainty of sending athletes out into a perilous international environment.
Nevertheless, the game of baseball is bigger than the narrow parochial interests of any one country. The ballistic grace and poetic drama of the sport elevates it to the level of world culture as it brings so many elements of tension and suspense into play. The graceful arc of a sidearm slider pitch as it changes course in mid-flight to cross over the outside corner of the plate, deceiving the batter's senses; the crack of a 95 mph fastball when it meets the thick end of the bat; the graceful leap of a second basement avoiding collision with the runner even as he dispatches a minutely calibrated throw to first base to achieve the double play; the nerve-wracking game of cat-and-mouse played between the pitcher, catcher, basemen and runner in an attempted steal - these are the elements eclipsing any other sport in the world, and bringing tears of joy to the eyes of the afecionado.
I desperately want the USA to always win all the time out of love for all the happiness the game has given me during my entire life, but that emotion is conflicted by the thrill of seeing the game incrementally spread around the globe. If having to share the glory with other, equally deserving foreign races is the price Americans must pay for sharing the ultimate expression of our inestimable genius, then that is a small price to pay.
There are no fans in the world more partisan and enthusiastic than those of the Tokyo Dome. The racket emanating from the place, accompanied by a trumpet and drum band of dedicated devotees aroused the senses even as the drama unfolded on the playing field. Ti Yu Darvish, a slender six-foot pitcher whom the announcers delighted in comparing to Randy Johnson, led off for Team Japan. Half-Iranian and half-Japanese whose parents met while they were students in the United States, Darvish is an example of how far baseball has progressed from its provincial origins. Darvish had a whole repertory of outstanding stuff, keeping the Chinese hitless throughout his four-inning tenure on the mound, during which he presided over 3 of Japan's 4 runs. He was followed in succession by a battery of Japanese major league starters who had been drafted as relievers for this series, and who so thoroughly dominated China as to really turn the game into a yawner for any but the most appreciative fan who, like this writer, was entranced at the technical perfection that had been brought to bear by the Chinese team.
The Chinese have yet to master some of the nuances of the game, as when they mishandled a squeeze play at home plate and inadvertently set themselves up to concede a run to Japan in the following play. Chinese pitcher Guogiang sent a Japanese home when he tried to pick off a runner at first while forgetting to lift his foot off the rubber, committing a balk. These are unforgivable faults owing to a lack of hard experience.
Chinese hitting was also almost non-existent. They got some hits, but these guys are too slight to marshal the power necessary to slam the long ball. Say what you want about A-Rod or Barry Bonds, but when you take away all that muscle from the game it eliminates a team's power and hobbles it offensively. Growth enhancement or no, the Chinese team needs to hit the weight room in order to give itself the emphatic power necessary to dispatch the long ball and win games.
You don't have to be a genius to pick winners for the first round, so since I'm not a genius, here are my picks:
South Korea over Taiwan
Cuba murders South Africa (South Africa???)
Mexico murders Australia
U.S. murders Canada
Venezuela over Italy
DR over Netherlands
Puerto Rico over Panama
LET'S PLAY BALL!!
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