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Upcoming WBC sparks excitment for Japanese baseball enthusiasts

by Wayne Graczyk

It’s time once again to gear up for the World Baseball Classic.

The Samurai Japan team was to play its first WBC tuneup game on Sunday against the Hiroshima Carp at Sun Marine Stadium in Miyazaki. This will be followed by another warmup against the Seibu Lions on Feb. 18, also at Sun Marine.

Then it’s on to Kyocera Osaka Dome for exhibitions against the Australian national team Feb. 23 and 24. The Japan representative squad will also face the Hanshin Tigers on Feb. 26 at Kyocera, before wrapping up practice games with a Feb. 28 meeting against the Yomiuri Giants at Fukuoka Yafuoku Dome.

The official tournament begins March 2 in Fukuoka and moves on with games the following week at Tokyo Dome, after which it is expected the two-time defending champion Samurai will move on and play at AT&T Park in San Francisco for the semifinals and final game which will take place on March 20.

As the Classic unfolds, I want you to take a mental snapshot of the hype and excitement of the Japanese fans so that, when 2016 rolls around and preparations are starting to be made for the next edition of the event in 2017, you can remember what it was like.

Three years from now, Japan will probably threaten, as it did prior to the 2006, 2009 and 2013 editions, to sit out World Baseball Classic 4, citing again some dissatisfaction about conditions and its share of the sponsorship income. In the end though, Japan will always take part.

I would bet there is no other country among the WBC participants more enthusiastic about its team than Japan.

Is there another nation that gives its club such an iconic name as “Samurai?” Is there another country that splashes news about its World Baseball Classic team across the front pages of seven national daily sports newspapers?

After Japan finally decided it would get into WBC 3, there was immediate speculation and high interest over who would be the team manager, succeeding Sadaharu Oh (2006) and Tatsunori Hara (2009). It was big news when former Hiroshima star player and manager Koji Yamamoto got the job.

As the Samurai advance to the final rounds, the enthusiasm will increase and, should Japan make it to the final again, fans around the country will be glued to their TV sets to watch Masahiro Tanaka, Shinnosuke Abe and company as they try to bring home a third consecutive World Baseball Classic championship trophy.

Sponsors will proudly support the Samurai Japan team with campaigns. Asahi Beer, for example, uses the 2013 World Baseball Classic multi-colored logo on its “Winning Brew” brand with posters in supermarkets and convenience stores rooting for the team to “Go for V3.”

Other Japan sponsors include Konami, Sankyo and SSP Pharmaceutical. Konami is also a global sponsor along with Delta Airlines, Brand USA and MetLife.

Keep this all in mind when Japan threatens to boycott the next WBC. Take my word for it; there is no way Japan will not play.

One more thing: Regarding the Japanese pitchers’ reported complaints about the WBC baseball being “slippery” and the adjustment to it being difficult, now would be a great time for all the world’s baseball countries to talk about adopting the use of a standard ball (the MLB one?) everywhere baseball is played.

Diamond Dust: According to a Feb. 1 Dallas Morning News article by Jerry Fraley, the Texas Rangers are sending scout Joe Furukawa back to Japan to concentrate on the Pacific Rim and specifically Tanaka, the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles’ prized right-hander.

In anticipation of Tanaka’s possible (probable?) posting for major league service at the end of the 2013 season, it appears Furukawa will be on a full-time “Ma-kun” watch, and would that not be something if the Rangers sign Tanaka to form a one-two Japanese pitching punch with Yu Darvish in 2014?

The multi-faceted Furukawa is a former player and long-time interpreter in Japanese baseball with the Yokohama BayStars, and he later spent four seasons (2006-09) as the chief translator with the Hiroshima Carp when American Marty Brown was the manager of that club.

In 2010, Furukawa joined the Rangers scouting staff and was instrumental in the evaluation and eventual signing of Darvish with Texas last year. He was also the interpreter at press conferences introducing Darvish to his new club and helping the ex-Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters ace make a smooth transition to the majors. . . .

The first night games ever to be played at Victor Starffin Stadium in Asahikawa will take place this season. Only day games have been played at the ball park in central Hokkaido because there were no lights.

The field named after the legendary Russian-Japanese pitcher and Japan Hall of Famer will be lit when the Nippon Ham Fighters host the Chunichi Dragons in interleague games June 2-3. The Fighters will also play Pacific League games there on Aug. 13-14 against the Orix Buffaloes. All four contests will begin at 6 p.m.

Finally this week, congratulations to author Rob Fitts whose book, “Banzai Babe Ruth: Baseball, Espionage & Assassination During the 1934 Tour of Japan,” has been awarded the prestigious Seymour Medal as the best book of baseball history or biography published in 2012.

The award has been presented annually since 1996 by the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) and is named in honor of the late baseball historian, Dr. Harold Seymour, and his widow and fellow historian Dorothy (Seymour) Mills. The prize will be presented at the NINE spring training conference in Tempe, Arizona, on March 16.


Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com