U.S. Strikes Out in World Baseball Classic

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The U.S. team struck out in the first annual World Baseball Classic, losing to Mexico last week. The new global baseball championship series, to be held every four years, fell during the same time most Major League Baseball players are in spring training. Monday's championship game will feature Japan and Cuba.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

First this. We've moved beyond Derek Jeter and Roger Clemens, the biggest names in baseball tonight are players like Pedro Lazo and Kosuke Fukudome. That's because tonight is the championship game of the World Baseball Classic, Team Cuba against Team Japan.

The tournament is part of a long running effort by major league baseball to popularize the game worldwide. The plan does seem to have worked, and maybe too well for fans in the U.S. who saw their team go down early in the competition.

From San Diego, NPR's Luke Burbank reports.

LUKE BURBANK reporting:

It was Saturday night, just minutes before Japan and Korea were set to play their semi-final game, when an interesting scene unfolded. Dave Winfield, the 6 foot 6 Yankee legend and Hall of Famer, who still looks like he could take the field today, was hovering in the first row of seats with a bunch of other fans, hoping to get a picture of a diminutive Japanese man who was walking off the field.

(Soundbite of cheering)

BURBANK: The man was Sadaharu Oh, Japan's manager, who in his playing days was the most prolific homerun hitter ever. He hit more than Babe Ruth, more than Hank Aaron, more than, ahem, Barry Bonds, and yet it's only now thanks to this tournament, says Winfield, that today's fans are hearing about Sadaharu Oh.

Mr. DAVE WINFIELD (Former N.Y. Yankee): It open the eyes of Americans because they don't know that other people have their own professional leagues and great players, and they don't all play here in the United States.

BURBANK: That's an understatement. Of the two teams in tonight's championship, Japan has just two major leaguers, Cuba has none; since any of its citizens who've actually made it to the majors are by definition, well, defectors. These two teams, with almost no recognizable names, managed to outlast squads from the U.S. and the Dominican Republic that looked more like major league All Star teams.

Mr. TOMMY LASORDA (Former Dodgers Manager): I can't give you an answer because I really don't know.

BURBANK: Tommy Lasorda has seen his share of baseball over the years, as a player, a Hall of Fame manager with the Dodgers, and now an executive with the club. He says the U.S.'s problem was lack of execution.

Mr. LASORDA: If you take the talent that was on our guy's team, you'd say hey, that's an outstanding team, but they didn't do the job and they know it as well as anybody.

BURBANK: Part of it could be that the games have simply been a way bigger deal in other parts of the world, inspiring their players to new heights.

Ms. SYLVIA SHO(ph) (South Korea Fan): This is so huge I cannot say it. Like, I know so many of my friend's parents who fly out to games. It's such an emotional and national pride game.

BURBANK: Sylvia Sho showed up to root for Korea, which eventually lost to Japan. Still, there was no denying the tournament was huge for Korean Americans, Korean Koreans, and especially the players.

Ms. SHO: The Korean government has agreed to consider not requiring the Korean baseball players to go to the military if they go to the semi-finals, which we did. That's a huge deal too.

BURBANK: You think? Last but not least, it could be that the underdog teams like Cuba and Japan just had more wah than the others. What's wah, you ask?

Ms. UKE TIGATSKA(ph) (Japanese Fan): Wah means strong connection with each other. That (unintelligible) wah.

BURBANK: Uke Tigatska recently moved to the U.S. from Japan. She definitely had some wah going on herself as she strolled through Petco Field with a Japanese flag tied around her neck like a cape.

Ms. TIGATSKA: Every member have to have like some connection with the others so that makes more stronger than each individual.

BURBANK: Does this Japanese team have a lot of wah?

Ms. TIGATSKA: Yes, I think so. Yes, today, yes.

BURBANK: But is that wah enough to overcome Cuba's amazing pitching? We'll find out tonight which team, Japan or Cuba, is more proficient at playing America's pastime. Luke Burbank, NPR News, San Diego.

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