A World Cup rival? Baseball fields a global game.
BEIJING — Asia's many baseball devotees love the home run. They admire bat speed and power. But in the sandlots and stadiums of the Pacific, it's really the "small ball" game that gets the glory - bunting, base stealing, speed, defense, pitching.
Think Ichirio Suzuki, the Japanese marquee player of the Seattle Mariners, whose game is all about finesse.
Indeed, as the game invented in America goes formally global, the inaugural event of the World Baseball Classic will take place in the Land of the Rising Sun - in an Asia where local talent is making great inroads into Major League Baseball, also known as "the bigs."
National teams from Korea, Japan, China, and Taiwan will vie to advance to the next phase of the classic - which features 16 teams in four rounds of elimination, ending in a final game on March 20 in San Diego.
If this sounds like baseball's attempt to create its own version of soccer's world-stopping "World Cup," it is.
"We are trying to internationalize the sport," Major League Baseball spokesman Pat Courtney told the Monitor. "The World Cup is a model for us."
The US majors count players from 30 countries. But Asia is a compass point where growth is fastest. Ten years ago Asian faces were rare and novel. Today, Taiwan has 13 players in the majors and minors, South Korea sports 10, and Japan contributes 18, including "Godzilla" - Hideki Matsui, the New York Yankees power-hitting left fielder, who will not play in the classic. [Editor's note: The original version misstated Matsui's first name.]
Unofficially, the teams from South Korea and Japan are given the greatest chance to win. But in the last Olympics, the Japanese lost in a painful 1-0 game to Australia - and team leader Ichiro has warned that Korea and Taiwan have aggressive teams that could offer an upset.
The Taiwan team is required to play under the name of "Chinese Taipei," since Beijing has long claimed that the island, a self-governing democracy, is historically Chinese sovereign territory.
China, not surprisingly given its history of isolation, has no history of a baseball program, and no players in the majors. It has six relatively new teams, four of which are considered promising - the Beijing Tigers, Tianjin Lions, Shanghai Eagles, and Guangdong Leopards. The Middle Kingdom's national team is in a learning curve, one helped by former LA Dodger's manager Jim Lefebvre.
Most Chinese are not even aware they have an active national baseball team. Given the slightly sour relations between Tokyo and Beijing, moreover, it is not likely that state media here will broadcast Friday night's opener between China and heavily favored Japan.
But as the host of the 2008 Olympics, which will feature baseball (the 2012 London Olympics may not), China is eager to field a decent team. The Chinese attended a month-long training camp in Scottsdale, Ariz., overseen by Mr. Lefebvre and pitching coach Bruce Hurst.
"There has been a strong effort by Beijing to lift up the quality of China's team," Mr. Courtney said. "Since 2003 they have improved rapidly.... It's pretty amazing that Asia can field three teams that have 10 to 12 players in the majors."
The classic is scheduled to be played every four years. The US team this year includes a number of superstars: Roger Clemens, the Houston Astros pitcher (whose longevity is so renowned that one sports writer complained he's covered Clemens's final game five times); Yankees star shortstop Derek Jeter and third baseman Alex Rodriguez; and former Red Sox (now Yankee) centerfielder Johnny Damon, who has shaved his beard and cut his locks for the New York team. Jason Varitek of Boston is one of three catchers.
Yet it remains to be seen how popular the classic will be, even among baseball-crazy fans like the Japanese. Baseball in Asia, and in Latin America, has always managed to export itself quite well, without much commercial help.
In the US, sports talk-show hosts have complained the 17-day event is cutting into spring training, and seems too manufactured. Some unusual rules apply as well: pitchers are allowed only 65 throws. After that, they must be replaced - one reason why the US team is carrying 14 pitchers on a 30-member squad.
Games will be played in Tokyo, Puerto Rico, Orlando, Fla., Phoenix, and Scottsdale, Ariz. Teams include Cuba (which will accept no profits to get past US sanctions), Italy, the Netherlands, and Australia.
The best represented region is Latin and South America: Dominican Republic, Panama, Venezuela, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Cuba. David Ortiz, the runner-up MVP American League hitter last year, said of his home state of the Dominican Republic, "A lot of these guys will be getting exposure and playing time they've never had."
And one Japanese commentator pointed out, "The classic is probably most important among fans in the Latin states. One of them might even win this."