The first Konami Cup Asia Series, held Nov. 10-13 at Tokyo Dome, gets high marks from this chair for its organization, execution and quality of play.
The four-team tournament featured the Japan Series champion Chiba Lotte Marines, Korea Baseball Organization champ Samsung Lions, Chinese Professional Baseball League (Chinese Taipei) victors Sinon Bulls and the national team from China, the China Stars.
There were three days of round-robin play followed by last Sunday’s final in which the Marines, managed by Bobby Valentine, defeated the Lions, led by former Chunichi Dragons pitcher Sun Dong Yol, by the score of 5-3.
Pleasantly surprising to me was the showing by the Stars, managed by American Jim Lefebvre and assisted by U.S. pitching coach Bruce Hurst. They lost all three games but by scores of 6-0 to Taiwan, 8-3 to Samsung and 3-1 to Lotte.
Not knowing much about their talent or lack of the same, I had expected maybe they would be blown away with opponents scoring in double figures each time. However, that thought quickly disappeared during Game 1 on Nov. 10.
Lefebvre has done a magnificent job and, except for a couple of sandlot blunders such as no one covering third base when the shortstop and third baseman went after a pop-up in short left field with a runner on second, and the second baseman overthrowing the pitcher while returning the ball to the mound, the Stars played solid baseball, offensively and defensively. They turned some pretty double plays, too.
Lefebvre, 63, former Lotte Orions player and coach, and major league manager with the Mariners, Cubs and Brewers, said he originally took the job as the Chinese team field boss in 2002, making a three-month commitment, “just to get things started.”
Three years later, he’s still at the helm and is looking forward to working with the team through next year’s World Baseball Classic and beyond.
Lefebvre recalled playing on the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1970 with Valentine, and he was asked if he ever imagined, 35 years later, he would face off in Tokyo with Bobby V. as managers, respectively, of the Chinese national team and the Japan champion club.
“Never in my wildest dreams,” Lefebvre answered.
The seven-game Konami Cup was an exercise in friendly competition, with the Tokyo Dome mood bouncing back-and-forth between the low-key atmosphere of exhibition baseball and the high-intensity of championship play.
At the Nov. 11 weekday morning game between Samsung and China, there were fewer than 2,000 fans in the stands. It was so quiet, you could hear a resin bag drop.
Contrast that with the Nov. 13 title game which drew a crowd of 37,078 to the Big Egg and the enthusiasm of those hyper, body-bobbing, towel-waving Lotte fans, singing and chanting so loud you could not hear yourself think.
Also interesting, though long, were the post-game press briefings conducted in four languages. The professional interpreters were superb, so the waiting time while translations of questions, answers and followup comments were done in English, Japanese, Korean and Chinese was kept to a minimum, and the point was made that baseball is an international game to be enjoyed by all, regardless of language or even political barriers.
Cultural differences, too.
One amusing incident occurred prior to the Marines-Bulls game when there was to be an exchange of caps between Valentine and opposing manager Liu Jung-Hua. Bobby, perhaps anticipating a photo opportunity, was waiting behind the batting cage during hitting practice, Marines black hat with the silver-scripted “M” and fuchsia zig-zag brim in hand, when Liu approached with his Sinon headgear gift — all wrapped neatly in a fancy shopping bag.
There was more internationalism when Benny Agbayani of Lotte won the Asia Series MVP award — a new Volkswagen automobile — and the Hawaiian native said he would apply for a Japanese driver’s license, so he can motor to Chiba Marine Stadium next season.
I don’t know when the next Konami Cup will take place, but there is talk of making it an annual event and perhaps rotating it among the participating countries.
It may be difficult to hold it at Tokyo Dome during the first or second weekend of November in 2006 when a major league All-Star postseason Japan tour is scheduled; there will likely be MLB-NPB games occupying the stadium.
One thing is for sure, though. The event was one I had anticipated perhaps covering for the money only. Instead, I came away not only with a little extra yen but also a sense of enjoyment and something I will look forward to working whenever and wherever it may be held in subsequent years.
Congratulations to the participants, sponsors and organizers.
New foreign player prospects: The Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters may be looking to sign infielder Nick Green who played in 2005 with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and also has major league experience with the Atlanta Braves. He’s played 206 games in the majors, compiling a .254 average with eight home runs and 55 runs batted in.
The Yokohama BayStars have tested pitchers Adrian Burnside and Jason Beverlin.
Burnside, a situational lefty, was 4-4 with a 2.98 ERA in 50 appearances for Syracuse, the AAA affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays, in 2005.
Right-hander Beverlin pitched for the Yakult Swallows in 2003 and 2004, compiling a two-year record of 17-15 with a 4.27 ERA.
Correction: The 2005 season winning percentage of former Yomiuri Giants pitcher Brian Sikorski was listed at .825 in last week’s column. With seven wins and only one loss, Brian actually compiled a victory rate of .875, making it even more difficult to understand why he was dropped by the Giants.
There have been reports at least one Japanese club, the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, is interested in employing Sikorski for 2006.
Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com
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