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I n recent years, circumstances surrounding Japanese baseball suggested that its popularity was in decline and that soccer was drawing away many fans. However, Team Japan’s 10-6 victory over Cuba this week to win the inaugural 2006 World Baseball Classic (WBC) is certainly enough to lift the fortunes of the sport, at least temporarily. Kudos goes out to Japanese team players and manager Mr. Sadaharu Oh for their energy and perseverance that led them to a world championship on American soil.

Teams from 16 nations were invited to compete in the tournament, which was organized by Major League Baseball (MLB) and its players’ union. The Japanese team’s path to the championship was not a smooth one. After posting easy wins over China and Taiwan at Tokyo Dome, it lost the Asian Round final to South Korea.

In the second round, it had an easy win over Mexico but suffered two defeats — one from South Korea (for a second time) and the other from the United States, after losing a key run due to an umpire’s blooper. Still, the Goddess of Fortune smiled on Team Japan. Mexico’s 2-1 victory over the U.S. in the second round of “Pool 1” enabled Japan to advance to the semifinals. In the semifinal game, the Japanese team overwhelmed the South Korean team. Japan ended the tournament with a 5-3 record.

Games in which the Japanese team competed were thrilling. Japanese, especially, were amazed at how their team overcame whatever difficulty it faced. The games were viewed in Japan as a drama. The average TV audience rating during the final game was 43.4 percent in the Kanto region, 40.3 percent in the Kansai region and 35.6 percent in the Nagoya area.

By the time Akinori Otsuka of the Texas Rangers struck out Cuba’s Yulieski Gourriel to end the game and Japan was handed the championship, the audience rating had soared to 56 percent for Kanto, 52.8 percent for Kansai and 46.8 percent for Nagoya.

The interest shown by the public has proven that baseball’s popularity has not waned in Japanese society. It also has reconfirmed that baseball has strong appeal as TV content. Ironically, the TV audience rate started to climb after TV variety shows took up the umpire’s blunder in the Japan-U.S. game, according to an ad agency official. “From the semifinal onward, it was like a social phenomenon,” the official said.

The MLB inaugurated the WBC as part of a globalization effort. At present, baseball’s international position is not shiny, as most MLB players come from North and South America and Asia. Although baseball will be played at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the International Olympic Committee has decided it will be baseball’s last appearance as an Olympics event. There will be no baseball games in the 2012 London Olympics. The IOC no longer wants to include baseball because Major Leaguers are not sent to Olympic games.

There was some criticism of the WBC’s organization. Management came mainly from MLB. Umpires were selected from the minor leagues, and the distribution of profits from the tournament was lopsided in favor of the U.S. The wisdom of holding the tournament in March was also questioned. Nevertheless, the WBC apparently helped rekindle interest in baseball to some extent. As superstar Ichiro Suzuki of the Seattle Mariners said, “The WBC was far from perfect, but I believe it received global attention.”

Even though MLB was the main force behind the WBC, Team USA could not make it to the semifinals. Instead, two teams from Asia and another two from Central America fought it out. The globalization that has swept MLB appears to have sunk the U.S. The dawning of new age may be good news for the world of baseball. It means a wider reach to attract more fans and recruit good players from various parts of the world. In fact, about 30 percent of Major League players are already from outside the U.S., including Japanese players such as Ichiro, Otsuka and Hideki Matsui of the New York Yankees.

Team Japan delivered joy and excitement to the Japanese public, while providing a sense of accomplishment to its manager and players. After the team captured the championship, manager Oh said, “I thought I would never, never get a chance to manage a team like this.”

Ichiro, who served as the virtual leader of the team and whose timely hit scored a crucial run in the ninth inning after the Cuban team had narrowed its deficit to a 6-5 margin, said: “I was glad that I could play baseball with splendid buddies. The pressure was enormous. If only I could play as a member of this team in the Major League. I played like a child with a pure heart.”

Will the spirit and energy generated by Team Japan spark a greater interest in baseball among young people?

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