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Asia Series lacking gravitas it once had

by Wayne Graczyk

What do you make of the Asia Series currently being played in Taichung, Taiwan? The tournament, begun in 2005, has gone from an official spectacle featuring the champion teams from the Asian countries where high-level baseball is played, to an exhibition series including non-Asian entrants and where teams are not always featuring their best players.

Flash back eight years when the Chiba Lotte Marines won the Japan Series and served as the host team for the first Asia Series. They were joined by the Samsung Lions from the Korea Baseball Organization, the Sinon Bulls of the Chinese Professional Baseball League (Taiwan) and the China Stars, an all-star contingent from the upstart China Baseball League, then managed by American Jim Lefebvre.

It made for a compact, four-team competition played at Tokyo Dome, there was official sponsorship by the Konami Corporation, and attendance was listed at more than 25,000 for games played by the Marines.

Sure, there were some drawbacks, such as the China Stars being blown out of games ended early by the tournament’s seven-inning, 10-run-deficit “mercy” rule and the sparse crowds of fewer than 3,000 spectators for weekday afternoon games not involving the Japan champions. Still, the cheering sections of the three visiting teams were spirited, even with their small number of fans.

Bobby Valentine managed the Marines, and foreign players stayed on to participate, despite the fact the event dragged on through mid-November. Lotte won it, and Marines outfielder Benny Agbayani was named the tournament MVP, driving off with a new automobile as his prize.

The Asia Series continued in similar fashion in 2006, with the Trey Hillman-managed Japan Series champion Nippon Ham Fighters winning. Japan stayed on top when the Chunichi Dragons took the 2007 event, and the Seibu Lions won in 2008, the last year of sponsorship by Konami.

No Asia Series was played the following two years, although the Yomiuri Giants beat the KBO Kia Tigers at Nagasaki in a one-game showdown, billed as a Club Championship Game, in 2009. In 2010, Lotte won a three-team club champions series that also included the SK Wyverns of the KBO and the Brother Elephants, representing Chinese Taipei. Games were played in Taiwan and Tokyo.

Without a title sponsor, the Asia Series was revived in 2011 when Korea’s Samsung Lions beat Japan’s Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks in the championship game played in Taiwan. Yomiuri reclaimed the title for Japan in 2012 with a victory over Taiwan’s Lamigo Monkeys at Busan, South Korea.

This week we have a six-team event with the Japan Series champion Rakuten Eagles, the KBO winner Samsung Lions, Australian League champ Canberra Cavalry, the top two teams from Taiwan and Italy’s Fortitudo Bologna.

Sadly, there are only four clubs remaining in the CPBL, so half of Taiwan’s pro teams are participating; the 2013 league pennant-winning Uni-President 7-Eleven Lions and runner-up EDA Rhinos. And what has happened to the development of baseball in mainland China?

The Eagles will not be the same team that won the Japan Series earlier this month, as foreign players Andruw Jones, Casey McGehee, Jim Heuser, Brandon Duckworth and Kenny Ray returned home for the winter the day after Rakuten beat the Giants to clinch the Japan Series title. It was also uncertain prior to the start if ace pitcher Masahiro Tanaka would play in the Asia Series.

With a round-robin format, the teams knocked out after playing two games in the first round apparently will not even face the other three clubs in the field.

Obviously, the Asia Series has not evolved into a high-level season-ending event that carries more importance than the championship finals in the various countries. Rather, it seems to be a mini version of the World Baseball Classic, but on a much lower scale. In the unlikely event of a final between Canberra and Fortitudo, the question raised would be, “Why is it called the ‘Asia’ Series?”

Should it be scrapped? For sure, the series promotes international good will and the baseball spirit, and the organizers are doing the best they can, but re-acquiring a title sponsor and re-assessing the concept of the Asia Series would appear to be helpful in keeping it going.

For at least one fanatic, though, it is all worthwhile. Larry Lipsher, a New York native and lifelong fan of the game now based in Hong Kong, offered the following comment: “Baseball? I flew to Taiwan for the Asia Series and will see all nine games in six days . . . torture for many — but me? I love it.”

*** Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com