Let’s begin the first baseball column following the World Cup with some words of congratulations and praise to everyone involved in that spectacular event. It was an exciting tournament that mesmerized most of Japan and South Korea, especially during the first half of June prior to the elimination of the cohost teams.

Though admittedly not a soccer fan, I even got into it a bit, attending a couple of World Cup-watching parties at the homes of friends and tuning in at other times to see how the matches were going.

I especially thought coaches Philippe Troussier of Japan and Guus Hiddink of the South Korean team did a remarkable job, and I felt the criticism of Troussier for his handling (some would say mis-handling) of the Japanese players in their 1-0 loss to Turkey on June 19 was harsh and uncalled for after he had taken the team so far.

It reminded me of the baseball situation when Bobby Valentine managed the Chiba Lotte Marines in 1995. He took a team nobody wanted, one that had not finished in the first division in 17 years, instilled confidence and pride in his players, got the team winning which in turn triggered a huge increase in attendance, and he led them to a strong second-place finish in the Pacific League and the promise of a championship run for the following season.

He turned the team, the entire franchise, around completely but was criticized and fired — because he did not win the pennant.

Sure, it would have been great to see Japan, under Troussier’s guidance, advance further in the World Cup, but it sure could have been a lot worse. The country should be proud of its team and its successful role as cohost. Good show!

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Nippon Television Network (NTV) is staging a campaign, already under way, to ease the country out of the soccer mode and back into baseball. There were a lot of off-days on the Central and Pacific League calendars during June with respect to the World Cup, and now a lot of baseball is to be played in July and August.

The Yomiuri Giants will play the second game of a three-game series against the Chunichi Dragons at the Tokyo Dome tonight, and helping the broadcaster with the “Back to Baseball” theme is former Giants great player, the 1989 Central League batting champion and MVP, Warren Cromartie.

Tonight, he will hob-nob with his former Giants teammate and current NTV commentator Kiyoshi Nakahata. Tomorrow, July 4, Cromartie will join me as commentator for NTV’s first telecast of a regular-season Giants game in 10 years. We’ll do a straight English-language play-by-play, and I am excited. For fans relatively new to Japan, NTV, Fuji-TV and other stations regularly telecast games in English on the bilingual sub-channel throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. When Japan’s economy began to go south, and as an economic measure, the networks dropped most of the local, live bilingual programming, including sports events and news.

We used to do about 15 Giants games per season in English between 1982 and 1992, plus post-season Major League Japan tours, but I was told in March of 1993 the end had come. The producer told me to “gaman,” Japanese for “hang in there” or “persevere.” He told me, “Your time will come again.”

Now, almost 10 years later, we’re back, at least for one game, with the English commentary, on the 4th of July, of all days. Maybe Melvin Bunch, a great American, will start for the Dragons, and it would be nice if John Wasdin were back off the disabled list and could toe the rubber for the Kyojin.

But regardless of who is pitching, please tune in tomorrow night at 7 p.m. and join my buddy Cromartie and me for an interesting game.

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Yakult Swallows fan or not, you have to be impressed with and happy for Kevin Hodges, the Central League leader in pitching victories. Going into yesterday’s games, the right-hander was 9-2 with a CL eighth best 2.83 earned run average. He’s pitched especially well against the first-place Giants, posting a 4-0 mark against them and a 1.74 ERA. He had one bad inning in a steady drizzle last Saturday, or he’d be 5-0 vs. Yomiuri and 10-2 overall, but he took a no-decision as Yakult eventually won, 9-6.

In fact, the Birds have won all six games Hodges has started against the Giants this season, and Swallows manager Tsutomu Wakamatsu has said, “Hodges is our ace,” a label the pitcher shakes off, insisting he’s just doing his job. But what a job! He’s having a year comparable to the one another American right-hander, Terry Bross, enjoyed for Yakult in 1995 when he went 14-5 and led the Central circuit with a 2.33 ERA.

Have Chicken, Will Pitch: Now that Dave Thomas, the founder and TV pitchman of the Wendy’s hamburger chain, has died, perhaps the company should consider using Hodges as Thomas’ replacement in commercials, at least in this country. Hodges’ pre-game meal on the day he pitches is usually a Wendy’s chicken sandwich, something he’s favored for a few years while pitching in the majors and minors in North America.

When he got the call to join Yakult in the middle of the 2001 season, the Houston native was a bit concerned he could not maintain the tradition because he was not sure if Wendy’s operated in Japan. He was relieved to find outlets in most of the country’s major cities and, if you see him in line ordering a chicken filet sando (Want fries with that?), check the baseball schedule. If there’s a Swallows game in that city that night, he’s probably fueling up for a start.

He’ll be aiming again for win No. 10 tomorrow night against the Hanshin Tigers at Jingu Stadium or over the weekend in Hiroshima, and it will not be surprising to see him on the hill opening one of the two Japan Pro Baseball Sanyo All-Star Games scheduled July 12 at Tokyo Dome and July 13 at Botchan Stadium in Matsuyama.

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