It remains to be seen if Japan can score back-to-back victories in the World Baseball Classic, but there is no doubt the attitude of the Japanese side is a complete reversal from 2006 when the first WBC was played.
Flash back three years ago, and you may recall Japan was a reluctant participant in the inaugural WBC; not sure of what it was getting into and concerned about the timing of the event where the championship game was played just three days before the start of its own Pacific League season opener.
It will be different this time.
Looking to defend its championship in the first WBC and hoping to erase memories of its lackluster performance in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the Japanese team will be going full blast into the 2009 WBC, and the reservations expressed in 2006 have vanished.
A hint of how seriously the Japan side is taking this tournament came in November when there was such a fuss about who would be the manager. At that time, people pondered these possibilities: Should it be the field boss of one of the 12 Central or Pacific League teams such as Sadaharu Oh, who led the 2006 winners while he still managed the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks, or an outsider such as Senichi Hoshino, the former Chunichi Dragons and Hanshin Tigers skipper who guided the team in China but failed to win a medal?
The consensus settled on Yomiuri Giants manager Tatsunori Hara, who will lead “Samurai Japan” when the WBC opens on March 5 at Tokyo Dome with Pool A — the Asia Round.
Preparation and timing of the event has also improved significantly. A series of tuneup games will be played prior to the official WBC contests, and the 2009 season-opening day for both Japanese pro leagues is April 3 so, even if Japan makes it to the WBC final on March 23 in Los Angeles, there will be plenty of time for Hara and his players to re-join their regular teammates and get reacclimated for the season.
Japan will meet the Australian national team for exhibition games at Kyocera Osaka Dome on Feb. 24 and 25. Hara’s Samurais will also take on the defending Japan Series champion Saitama Seibu Lions at Tokyo Dome on Feb. 28 and his own Giants team on March 1 at the Big Egg.
Also with high hopes for a fine showing in the WBC is Australian team manager Jon Deeble, who wrote in an e-mail from Melbourne: “We look forward to playing against manager Hara and the defending WBC champion team at Osaka Dome. The tuneup games against Japan will help us better prepare for our own pool and the tough opponents we will face.
“We have great respect for the Japanese team, and these games will give our players a chance to see what it will take to go to the finals of the WBC, as the Japanese team will be up there with the best.”
Deeble’s club is in Pool B along with Cuba, Mexico and South Africa, beginning official WBC play on March 8 in Mexico City. Pool C consists of the United States, Venezuela, Italy and Canada, starting March 7 in Toronto, and Pool D with the Dominican Republic, Panama, Puerto Rico and the Netherlands, opens the same day in San Juan.
From the e-mail bag, reader Glenn Davies in Tokyo asks the question of why Japanese teams do not retire numbers. “It always looks odd to see someone trot out to third base with (for me) Hara’s number 8 shirt,” he wrote.
Actually, Glenn, Japanese teams do retire numbers. On the Giants, there are six of what is referred to in Japanese as eikyu ketsuban.
The numbers 1 (world home run king Sadaharu Oh), 3 (“Mr. Giants” Shigeo Nagashima), 4 (pre-World War II star Toshio Kurosawa), 14 (legendary schoolboy phenom Eiji Sawamura), 16 (former great player and V-9 manager Tetsuharu Kawakami) and 34 (400-game winning pitcher Masaichi Kaneda) are retired. Replicas of their jerseys hang on pillars in the bleachers at Tokyo Dome.
Apparently, the Giants did not think current manager Tatsunori Hara was that great of a player, so his No. 8 is still worn by others. Following Hara’s retirement, second baseman Toshihisa Nishi donned the No. 8 jersey.
After Nishi was traded to the Yokohama BayStars prior to the 2007 season, the number was assigned to outfielder Yoshitomo Tani, obtained in a deal from the Orix Buffaloes.
Other teams have retired numbers, too. One is the Hiroshima Carp where no player can wear the numbers 3 and 8, put away to honor the heroics of, respectively, Sachio Kinugasa and Koji Yamamoto.
Kinugasa is the iron man who broke Lou Gehrig’s consecutive game playing record, only to see it eclipsed again by Cal Ripken Jr. Yamamoto was the Central League MVP in 1975. Kinugasa was CL MVP in 1984, another pennant-winning year for Hiroshima.
Speaking of the Carp, several fans have asked me if it is certain the new Hiroshima stadium will be ready in time for the home opener on April 10, 2009. The answer is that all indications are construction of Mazda Zoom Zoom Stadium will be completed before manager Marty Brown’s club hosts the Chunichi Dragons on that day?
A “Sayonara Shimin Kyujo” old-timers game featuring retired Carp players, including Kinugasa and Yamamoto, took place at Hiroshima Civic Stadium (amid snow flurries) Dec. 6, and sports papers have said the new ballpark will be ready for the team to practice two days prior to that April 10 lid-lifter.
Finally this week, the Baseball Bullet-In wishes its readers a Merry Christmas.
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