Japan WBC Champs Again

IchiroAmid all the hoops madness (which is not all that mad considering all the 1, 2, and 3 seeds made the Sweet 16), the World Baseball Classic marched on to a truly grand finale. Japan and Korea met for the fifth time this Classic, after splitting their first four battles two apiece. This last game took extra innings, with Japan ultimately prevailing to defend their 2006 title. Between a riveting game, the recent history between the two teams, and rich history between the two nations, in many ways this championship was all the World Baseball Classic can be.

However, despite a quality final and deserving champion, the 2009 Classic may be remembered for as many furrowed brows as shining moments. The shortcomings of the event came to a head yesterday in the semifinal between Japan and the United States. Japan rocked USA starter Roy Oswalt for six runs before it was said and done. Immediately, the commentators wondered if the team stuck with Oswalt because he needed the work to get ready for the MLB season. Similar concerns were raised when Evan Longoria pinch hit for Curtis Granderson in the eighth inning.

I am more skeptical than most that both questioned decisions were motivated primarily by the need to give Oswalt and Longoria the respective work they need. However, the fact that it is such a prevalent question will always hamper this tournament. The commentators talked about how much it hamstrings the USA, but it impacts every team except Cuba. Venezuela did not even have Johan Santana. Japan could have potentially also had Hideki Matsui and Hiroki Kuroda. Canada did not have Erik Bedard. Moreover, the pitch counts seem to heighten the awareness that this tournament is taking place during spring training. It creates an odd atmosphere, where players, teams, and fans have passion for the tournament, but the whole there feels a need for it to be restricted. It feels a little like a kid putting training wheels back on their bike after getting their driver's license.

The World Baseball Classic has potential for incredible moments. We saw it tonight. Dodger Stadium was packed with rabid baseball fans, even without USA in the final. The rivalry two nations can have, especially ones like Japan and Korea, are well beyond anything possible in Major League Baseball, or any professional sports league. There is not just international interest in baseball. There is true international passion and talent, and as the WBC grows, that will only grow too.

However, the time of the tournament needs to be moved, and I would move for it to be in November. It needs to take place after the Major League Baseball season for two reasons. First of all, players will be in shape, and things like pitch counts will not be needed. Second, teams should be less reluctant to let their stars play, because they will have time to recover from most injuries that could happen. Many more players would be able to compete at a level that they simply cannot with the current setup.

Would Roy Oswalt have still given up six runs, or Evan Longoria pinch hit for Curtis Granderson? I do not know, but if they did, the question would have been what Davey Johnson was doing, not whether he needed to give them enough work before the season started. The final may have still been Japan and Korea with the way the two teams performed, but the tournament would have been even better in November. The looming cloud spring training puts over the World Baseball Classic needs to be lifted. There would be complications with moving the WBC to November, but they are worth the gain. We have seen the potential in the World Baseball Classic, and it is time for it to take the next step.