Japan beats archrival Korea in World Baseball Classic showdown

For Koreans and Japanese, the game carried far more significance than Red Sox-Yankee-type rivalries.

SEOUL, South Korea – It may be time to forget about the World Series as the premier event of baseball – or at least to stop calling World Series winners “world champions.”

How about the World Baseball Classic, the true “world series?” The second WBC roared to an exciting climax on Tuesday afternoon here, Monday night in LA’s Dodger Stadium, with Japan’s tenth-inning 5-3 victory over a determined South Korean team that managed to tie the game in the bottom of the ninth after trailing most of the evening.

Ichiro Suzuki, whose eight seasons of 300-plus batting averages and 100-plus runs scored for the Seattle Mariners have yet to give him the chance to play in a World Series, drove in two runs in the top of the tenth. That was one more than enough for victory over Korea, which failed to produce in the bottom of the inning.

The fact that a name known to American baseball fans got the game-winning run-batted-in for Japan only underlined the internationalization of the sport – and the place of foreign players in the sport once known as "the great American pastime.” The only US major leaguer on the Korean team, Choo Shin Soo, an outfielder for the Cleveland Indians, tied the game 1-1 in the bottom of the fifth with a lead-off home run.

There was no disputing the fanaticism of fans in both Korea and Japan, not to mention the 54,846 devotees, many of them from southern California’s large Korean-American and Japanese-American communities, who filled Dodger Stadium.

Nor was there any doubt who the Japanese think are the real world champions. “No. 1 in the world,” was how Japan’s proud manager, Tatsunori Hara, characterized his team, which knocked an injury-plagued US team out of contention in the semi-final to meet regional rival Korea.

With the game beginning at 10 a.m. Tuesday in this time zone, TV screens and radios distracted “salarymen” throughout both countries until the noon lunch hour, when many gave up all pretense of work and stayed glued to the game until it ended nearly two hours later. In the frigid air outside, crowds stared up at huge overhead TV screens or ducked into nearby restaurants to watch the game.

For Koreans and Japanese, the game carried far more significance than Red Sox-Yankee-type rivalries. There was a huge issue of pride, with two historic foes carrying the flag for their countries. As they came into the WBC final, each team had defeated the other two times in this series alone.

South Korea won the gold medal in last year’s Beijing Olympics, defeating the Japanese twice on the way, and also defeated Japan twice in the first WBC in 2006, though Japan won the championship by beating Cuba in the final. (Read the Monitor's coverage of the first WBC here and here.)  And South Korea garnered a bronze medal in the 2000 Olympics, defeating – who else – Japan, which had shut out the Koreans earlier in that series.

South Korean President Lee Myung Bak caught the nationalist spirit of the match-up in a congratulatory message after South Korea’s loss. Thanking “our players for doing their best with great love for their country,” he said in his message, “I believe the confidence the players and our people won through the tournament has greater value than victory.”

Those words no doubt consoled some of the saddened fans – at least until the next WBC series.

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