Samurai Japan fans will miss nation’s MLB players in upcoming WBC

by Wayne Graczyk

They are dropping like flies. Talking here about Japanese players in the major leagues who have decided they will not play in the World Baseball Classic in March. Yu Darvish, Hisashi Iwakuma, Norichika Aoki, Ichiro Suzuki and Hiroki Kuroda, members of their country’s championship teams in 2006 and 2009, will not be wearing the Samurai uniform when “WBC 3″ opens at Yahoo Dome in Fukuoka March 2.

The reason given for their not playing is they would like to concentrate on preparing for the coming season with their respective MLB clubs, and they want to be in training camp with their National or American League teammates.

It is also doubtful two other World Baseball Classic veterans, free agents heading for the majors for the first time, will play for Japan next spring. Infielder Hiroyuki Nakajima and pitcher Kyuji Fujikawa will likely want to be with their clubs for the entire pre-season period so as to get acclimated to their new surroundings.

All this probably means Japan manager Koji Yamamoto will field an all-NPB team of players whose labor union was ironically reluctant to join the Classic. It also takes away some of the charm of one of the more interesting elements of the WBC: having players from various professional leagues get together with fellow countrymen to play for national pride.

When Major League Baseball first proposed holding the World Baseball Classic, it was said all participating players should not have problems with preparation for their season because each country’s team would hold workout sessions that would serve as the players’ spring training, and the WBC games would take the place of exhibition contests they would not be playing.

That concept seems to have been ignored by the Japanese MLBers who apparently feel they would be missing too much if they took leave from their clubs.

Time-wise, there would still be about 10 days following the conclusion of the tournament for MLB or NPB players, even those playing in the final, to return to their regular season clubs by opening day.

The 2013 WBC championship game is to be played March 19 at AT&T Park in San Francisco. The MLB season opener is set for Sunday, March 31, and the Japanese baseball regular schedule begins March 29.

Joe Torre, the USA team manager, was quoted as saying he would “take care of all the players” and return them in good condition for the start of their season. No doubt Yamamoto will do likewise with the Samurai warriors.

Another point is the sponsorship money in Japan and excitement level among Japanese fans is likely to be watered down. There was that nationwide promotion in 2009 by McDonald’s where the fast-food hamburger chain gave away a souvenir clear file plastic folder with the image of a Samurai Japan player to customers ordering a Quarter Pounder burger-fries-and-drink set from the menu.

The most popular folders, given out at random, were those featuring Ichiro and Daisuke Matsuzaka, and who knows where Dice-K will be when the WBC tournament gets underway in March?

With Ichiro out, it is likely his career is finished as a World Baseball Classic player. He just celebrated his 39th birthday on Oct. 22, so he would be 43 before the next WBC rolls around in 2017.

One final thing about holding the Classic in March with the deciding game slated for the middle of the month in the U.S. is the fact the annual NCAA college basketball tournament, known as “March Madness,” opens about the same time. Much of the general sports interest in North America is consumed by that event, and it must take something away from the WBC, regardless of which teams are in the baseball semifinals and championship game.

In light of all the above, might the WBC organizers consider moving their competition to the postseason — like maybe November? Granted, with all the baseball being played in various countries where seasons extend and cover most of the calendar year, and an expanded WBC field to include qualifying rounds, placing the World Baseball Classic is no easy task.

Hopefully, the 2013 version will be a successful one and, for Japanese fans, the Samurai team will once again be one of the finalists when the games reach California. Admittedly, though, the absence of the Japanese major leaguers will necessarily take something away from the enthusiasm.

Diamond Dust: Former Hanshin Tigers great Randy Bass was supposed to have played in the Nov. 18 Hanshin-vs.-Yomiuri Giants old-timers game at Koshien Stadium but was unable to make the trip to Japan because of a detached retina in his left eye.

The Tigers team website posted Bass’ apology letter with a complete explanation of why he could not come.

Bass said his doctor used a laser during emergency surgery and inserted gas into the eye to secure the retina. He was then prohibited from flying because the gas bubble could burst, resulting in permanent damage to his vision.

His non-appearance is most unfortunate because, for years since he left the Tigers in 1988 following two Triple Crown seasons (1985-86) and a Japan Series victory (1985), relations were not good between the team and their former slugger. Bass had gone to the U.S. to care for his son, Zachary, ill at the time with a brain tumor, and did not return to Japan quickly as the team had wanted.

Obviously, the relationship has been patched up, since Bass was invited by the club to participate in the OB contest, and his letter expressed sincere regret to the Tigers and their fans, calling them “the best in the world.” Hopefully Bass, who makes it to Japan each year to play in the annual Suntory Malts game, will get another chance to wear the Hanshin uniform again sometime soon.

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Contact Wayne Graczyk at Wayne@JapanBall.com