Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Our Pastime Has Passed Us By

Japan Tops S. Korea in Classic WBC Final

Before we get started, you should know that I did watch the Knicks last night. They lost. And for a team whose playoff hopes were extinguished a few days ago they still managed to make the defeat sting. They're special like that. But, I'm not here to talk about the Knicks. I'm here to talk about a baseball game that I watched last night.

It was as good a baseball game as I've seen in a long time. Better than any of the games in the 2008 World Series. Better than any of the games in either League Championship series. The game I watched was exceedingly well played. And it was tightly contested. There were strike -'em-out, throw-'em-out double plays. There was a helmet-exploding collision at second base. There were strike-throwing pitchers. There was a team going in front four times and the other team tying the score three times. There were batters with a definite and appreciable approach at the plate. There was a phenomenal plays in the field, with the glove and the arm. There were outfielders playing shallow to keep runners from advancing and outfielders making great catches without fear of the wall. There was active managing coming from both dugouts. There was a young ace coming in to close out a game in the bottom of the ninth. And, then again in the bottom of the tenth. Because there was a game-tying rally in the ninth. There was a pitcher/team/nation challenging a superstar in a big spot. And there was a superstar coming through in said spot.

There were even wispy mustaches, long sideburns, and ESPN broadcaster Joe Morgan proclaiming from the broadcast booth that he knew better than those on the field. I didn't notice any players stuffing plugs of tobacco into their lower lips, but there was no doubting that this was baseball. Except without two things that we've come to expect: Americans and plodding power hitters in the field (an unnecessary distinction?). And, apparently, this makes the game even more base-bally. I was up until nearly two in the morning watching the final of the World Baseball Classic between Japan and South Korea. And, it was awesome.

The obvious takeaway is that the Far East has pulled far ahead of the USA when it comes to our national pastime. This marks the third consecutive (at least) major international competition won by either Japan or South Korea (the 2008 Olympics and the 2006 WBC) and there is no questioning that the two Asian powerhouses are playing the most effective and consistent ball at the international level. After watching Team USA fail to reach the final, it would be safe to assume that USA baseball is either uninterested or unable to compete. But, I don't think that either is true. I think that our players thought that they were going to win. And, I think that our players are capable of winning.

This country can still produce fundamentally sound athletes and managers with a keen eye for the perfect spot to put on the hit and run. Our problem isn't a lack of fundamental skills it's a fundamental lack of understanding which skills we should value. Ours is an intellectual problem rather than an athletic one. The Japanese team sent nine players into last night's game (six started in the field and three came in during the game) who have won at least one Gold Glove Award during the last four years of play. Not surprisingly, the team didn't commit any errors during the winner-take-all championship game.

Although the US wasn't an exceedingly error-prone team during the Classic, the lineup was one structured around bats not gloves. At the start of the semifinal defeat to Japan, the US lineup contained just 3 players who have been awarded Gold Glove awards: Jimmy Rollins, Derek Jeter and David Wright. One other gold-glove player would come off the bench to play in the outfield during the bottom of the eighth. Of the three starters, one is actually considered among the worst defenders at his position and another was named the designated hitter (ironically so the statistically feeble guy could play in the field). The USA committed three costly errors in the loss that eliminated them from contention. Arguably the team's best defender (Rollins) was DHing while the team's worst defender (and as natural a DH as there is in the game today), Adam Dunn, was playing in right field where he was peppered with balls during Japan's five-run fourth inning.

As a baseballing nation, our flaw is not about an inability to field or a dearth passion. It is in our concept of what makes for a winner. We think that balls that end up in the stands create wins but really it's about consistently putting balls in play and catching those that the other team puts in play. It's about keeping the line moving when you're up at bat and keeping the ball in front of you when the other team is. It's about the Big Red Machine and the 1996-98 Yankees. It's about the way that we played the game before steroids. And before chicks started digging the longball. Last night's game was thrilling in spite of the fact that I didn't know many of the players and didn't know their back stories. It was thrilling because the relentless style of play was exhilirating. Hopefully, next time I can watch Team USA beating Japan and South Korea at their own game by playing what used to be our game.

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