Former Team USA skipper Buck Martinez said he recalls everything from the game in Anaheim, California, where his team and manager Sadaharu Oh’s Japan squad squared off in the second round of the inaugural World Baseball Classic in 2006.
“I recall me exchanging the lineup card at home plate to (umpire) Bob Davidson and asked Mr. Oh how many home runs he hit. And then he asked me how many home runs I hit,” Martinez, who came up with 58 homers in his 17-year major league career (Oh had 868 in NPB), said with a laugh before Thursday’s China-Australia game at Tokyo Dome.
The first WBC was a big deal for Japan as it was the first time ever that it formed an all-pro national team and competed with a major leaguer-filled U.S. squad. But Martinez said that it was “tremendous honor” to play against the Asian country, too.
“I actually played against the Tokyo Giants in 1971 in spring training with Mr. Oh,” recalled Martinez, a former catcher who is working on the MLB Network broadcast team for the WBC’s Tokyo rounds. “They had (Shigeo) Nagashima and (the late Hidetake) Watanabe, a big pitcher. They came to Florida for spring training. I was playing with the Kansas City Royals. I have a picture at home of Nagashima sliding into me at home plate.
“So I take a tremendous amount of pride to be involved in this tournament and recognized how good baseball is around the world. Baseball has grown, particularly in Canada, then the Netherlands and Italy, and even in China. When you see the competition how they have all improved so dramatically, and I think the World Baseball Classic has a lot to do with it. I love the tournament.”
The WBC has become huge in Japan today. On the other hand, in 2006 people didn’t really have an idea what kind of a tournament it would become and there wasn’t as much excitement early on.
But the Japan-U.S. game sparked greater interest, bringing a lot people in front of their TV sets. And one particular play — or call — contributed to it.
With the game tied 3-3 in the top of the eighth inning, Akinori Iwamura hit a sacrifice fly to left to drive in Tsuyoshi Nishioka from third base.
But Team USA appealed to Davidson that Nishioka left the bag early and the home-plate umpire overturned the call that was originally made by the second-base ump. On the replay, it clearly shows that Nishioka left the bag after left fielder Randy Winn made the catch. Japanese media afterward treated it as an impossible misjudgment by Davidson, making him famous in this country. The controversial decision was even described by U.S. media as a bad call, too.
The call proved costly for Japan. Alex Rodriguez hit a walk-off RBI single in the ninth to give Team USA a 4-3 win.
Eleven years later, Martinez surprisingly admitted that Nishioka did not leave the bag early and that the ump’s decision wouldn’t happen had it been now.
“Obviously, now with the benefit of the instant replay, it would have probably reversed (back to the original call),” Martinez said.
Martinez, 68, added that he saw Nishioka rocking back, trying to have some momentum as he took off the bag and it made it look to Martinez that he left early.
“Because he did it the way he did it, it just looked suspicious,” Martinez said. “But it wasn’t. He was safe.”
The moment Davidson overruled the call, Martinez pumped his fist excitedly.
“We took a run off the board,” he said. “That’s why I was excited. It was a big play for us. But we couldn’t beat Mexico (in the final game of the pool).”
Oddly enough, Japan, which suffered losses against the U.S. and South Korea and compiled just one win in the second round, still advanced to the final round because it had allowed the fewest runs per nine innings in the pool. That gave it the tiebreaker over the U.S. and Mexico.
Japan went on to beat South Korea in the semis and Cuba in the gold-medal game to capture the title.
Back to the latest edition of the WBC, the bracket seems unbalanced as the majority of the star major league players are in Pool C and D, which are being held in Miami and Mexico, respectively, for the first round.
But Martinez insisted that the Asian pools that are being staged in Seoul and Tokyo — Pool A and B, respectively — have intriguing teams and players.
“People that haven’t been involved, especially the players that haven’t been involved, don’t understand the magnitude of this,” said Martinez, who managed the Toronto Blue Jays in 2001 and 2002. “To see a crowd here, and to see the Japanese fans acknowledge the all-stars, the way they do is very impressive. They have so much respect for the game, and the players have respect for the game. And that’s the beauty of the tournament.
“Now we have Israel advancing to the second round and of course they are all former major league players, but still, nobody expected them to do that. The Netherlands has five or six major league shortstops playing on the team. So the talent in this pool is tremendous. I just wish everybody could see it firsthand to get appreciation for what it really is.”