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Posturing won’t keep Japan from defending WBC title

by Wayne Graczyk

One of the stories in baseball news recently involves the participation — or non-participation — by a Japan representative team in the 2013 World Baseball Classic.

The story on Aug. 10 from Kyodo News indicated Japan will not play the year after next, unless it gets a more favorable monetary deal from Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association, the organizers of the tournament. Supposedly, this will be decided before the end of this month.

For similar reasons, the Japanese were at first reluctant to enter the inaugural World Baseball Classic in 2006, but they finally joined and won it all. The same thing happened prior to the 2009 edition of the 16-team event.

“We’re not playing,” they had said but, in the end, there they were, not only playing, but also taking home the winner’s trophy.

Now here they are again, threatening once more to sit out. My hunch, though, is when the next tournament comes around in a year and a half, the two-time defending champions will be right in there trying to make it three in a row. There is just too much hype and sponsorship money on the line and — most importantly — too much pride on the part of the Japanese.

Maybe some have forgotten what it was like during the 2008-09 offseason, leading up to the second World Baseball Classic, but I have not. There was huge anticipation about who would be the Japan team manager and succeed Sadaharu Oh who, while still the field boss of the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, led Team Japan to victory in ’06.

After it was determined Yomiuri Giants manager Tatsunori Hara would be at the helm of the 2009 squad, the team became known as “Samurai Japan,” and the entire country of baseball fans lined up to lend support. As I wrote in the column on March 1, 2009, a few days prior to the start of the Asian Round of the World Baseball Classic, yakyu fever reached its peak as Samurai Japan made its final preparations for the tournament.

The team set up its camp in Miyazaki where the townsfolk as well as fans from all over Kyushu island turned out in droves to watch Hara and the boys work out, and 30,000 fans jammed Sun Marine Stadium to see the Samurai play a practice game against the Giants. The official team jerseys with “Japan” scripted across the front sold like the proverbial hotcakes, and sponsors were eager to back the World Baseball Classic.

I can recall fighting a traffic jam around the ball park following the Samurai-Yomiuri game and, on the way to the airport to turn in a rental car and catch a flight back to Tokyo, I stopped at a McDonald’s near Minami Miyazaki Station where a campaign was under way. As a sponsor of the World Baseball Classic, the fast-food outlet was giving away plastic clear file folders with images of Team Samurai players on them.

You had to buy a Quarter-Pounder set with the thick burger, fries and a soft drink to get a free folder, and the cooking staff could not turn out the beef patties fast enough. The lines to order were long, the place was packed, and the string of cars looking for the drive-through window service extended down the street. After a good wait, I got my Quarter Pounder with Cheese and went upstairs to look for a seat. A housewife invited me to share a table with her and her 6-year-old son, and we struck up a conversation.

The boy saw my folder with Team Japan pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka depicted on it and asked his mom to get one for him, but she explained they were given away only to customers buying the Quarter-Pounder, and he had a kid’s Happy Meal.

In return for their invitation to sit at the table, I gave the child my folder, and that kid was so happy. Recalling that incident, strange as it may seem, made me realize how important it is for Japan to be in the World Baseball Classic.

There is also that pride factor. It is no secret how much Japanese sports fans love their national organizations, whether it be backing them in competitions such as the Olympic games or celebrating the recent victory by “Nadeshiko” Japan team in the Women’s Soccer World Cup.

What about Ichiro Suzuki? He’s 37, and the 2013 World Baseball Classic could conceivably be the last chance for the Seattle Mariners superstar to display the fierce competitive spirit he showed us in 2006 and 2009.

The Kyodo article said, according to a source, there is a deadline of the end of September for NBP and the JPBPA to decide whether to participate in 2013. It also quoted MLB Vice President for Asia Jim Small as saying the World Baseball Classic will go on, with or without Japan’s entry.

Also raised is the possibility Toshimasa Shimada, team representative of the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters and chairman of NPB’s international affairs committee, might travel to the U.S. this month to negotiate a deal whereby Japan will stay in the World Baseball Classic family.

Guys, we need to get this together. The Japanese fans need to have those Japan jerseys to buy so they can again cheer for a national team with a colorful nickname led by a popular manager. Ichiro needs one more chance to be a hero for his country.

That kid in Miyazaki needs a new McDonald’s clear folder with a favorite Japanese player’s face on it, and give me another Quarter Pounder with Cheese.

A two-time champion needs to stand up and defend its title. Japan needs to be in the 2013 World Baseball Classic.

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Contact Wayne Graczyk at Wayne@JapanBall.com