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Asian round of WBC produced some interesting notes

by Wayne Graczyk

Japan and South Korea join Cuba and Mexico in Round 2, Pool 1, of the 2009 World Baseball Classic beginning Sunday in San Diego. As expected, the Asian rivals advanced after finishing as the winner (Korea) and runnerup (Japan) in the Asia Round completed at Tokyo Dome on March 9.

That series which also included China and Taiwan was a whirlwind of activity on and off the field with some interesting games, a curious format and a gathering of baseball personalities from Asia and other countries.

Japan had to settle for second place, losing to South Korea 1-0 last Monday, although the host nation embarrassed the Korean club 14-2 two days prior to that, and many fans questioned why South Korea was the winner of Pool A after each team won twice in the round.

Actually, the Major League Baseball organizers came up with a brilliant format, whereby the team winning the last game claims that round, though both clubs in the final advance to the next level.

Furthermore, South Korea had a better record, finishing at 3-1 (a .750 percentage). Japan, at 2-1, logged a .667 winning average. Interestingly, had Japan beaten South Korea in that last game, South Korea would have still remained in the “double elimination” tournament, even with two losses.

Regarding the uneven number of games and the fact Japan did not play Taiwan (a pool team), these are consequences of the format that cannot be avoided with certain results of the first two games of the round. It all depends who wins.

Managers Tatsunori Hara of Samurai Japan and In Sik Kim of the Korean team accepted the fact one team played an extra game.

“We don’t count the number of games,” said Hara. “We just try to win them all.”

Kim said, “We can’t control the fact we played four games and Japan played only three. Those are the rules of the tournament, and we have to go out there and play whenever we’re scheduled.”

There were crowds of better than 42,000 at The Big Egg for the games played by Japan, and scouts or representatives from at least 12 major league teams were at the Asia Round; people from the Yankees, Orioles, Indians, Tigers, Rangers, Mariners, Twins, Astros, Dodgers, Mets, Cubs and Giants.

Two of the best and most famous players in Japanese baseball history — Sadaharu Oh (the 2006 World Baseball Classic champion team manager) and Isao Harimoto — threw ceremonial first pitches. Oh-san opened the event, taking the mound prior to the Japan-China game, and Harimoto, an ethnic Korean, did the honors prior to the South Korea-Taiwan contest.

It was “old home week” for three personalities once part of Japanese baseball: Terry Collins, Orestes Destrade and Phil Bradley.

Team China manager Collins was the Orix Buffaloes skipper in 2007-08. Destrade was a slugger with the Seibu Lions from 1989-92 and came back again in 1995. Bradley played in Tokyo with the Yomiuri Giants in 1991.

Destrade, the Pacific League home run king in 1990, 1991 and 1992, was back to broadcast the World Baseball Classic Asia Round for ESPN. Bradley was here working for the Major League Baseball Players Association.

Collins took the job as China manager, succeeding Jim Lefebvre, another “old Japan hand” (with the Lotte Orions, 1973-77). Collins said he decided to accept the “six-week gig,” though he has never been to China.

He met his team in the U.S. recently when it began training. He was told he would lose his first two games in the Classic, and it would be over. However, he managed a victory over Taiwan, and his pitching staff held Japan to just five hits in their 4-0 loss to Hara’s Samurai.

Collins said, after his team lost to South Korea and bowed out of the pool, he was glad he made the most of the opportunity and praised the man he replaced.

“Jim Lefebvre and the other coaches did a fantastic job with the Chinese athletes, and they deserve a lot of credit,” he said.

Asked if he would like to visit China or extend his contract, Collins said, “I will go home (to the U.S.) and take it easy. But if I get a phone call from China and they want me to go there and help, I would be more than willing to listen.”

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Finally this week, in the midst of the gloomy — mostly economic — reports we have been getting the past few months, it is nice to see some lighter news once in a while. How about the recovery of the Col. Sanders statue from the bottom of the Dotonbori River in Osaka?

You know the story. Inebriated Hanshin Tigers fans, celebrating their 1985 championship, threw the likeness of the colonel in the water where it remained until being fished out last week by a crew cleaning the river bottom.

New Hanshin manager Akinobu Mayumi was quoted as saying the statue should be sent to Koshien Stadium, and I would like to second that.

Mayumi was an outfielder on the ’85 Tigers team and hit 34 home runs as part of a slugging quartet. First baseman Randy Bass led with 54 homers, third sacker Masayuki Kakefu slammed 40 and second baseman Akinobu Okada, Mayumi’s predecessor as the Tigers manager, belted 35.

Hanshin won Central League pennants in 2003 and 2005 but has not won another Japan Series during the whole time the colonel was in the drink. Now that he’s back — most of him, anyway — the icon should be sent to Koshien and put on display at the entrance to the ballpark.

It would be great publicity for Kentucky Fried Chicken and might even inspire the Tigers to go all the way for the first time in 24 years.

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Contact Wayne Graczyk at: wayne@JapanBall.com


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