America's pastime, Asia's future
Next year in November, Taiwan will host the qualifying rounds of the 2013 World Baseball Classic. The tournament marks yet another development in the growing phenomenon that is baseball in the Asia-Pacific. Asian countries have dominated the premier World Baseball competition since its commencement, with Japan winning in both 2006 and 2009. Daisuke Matsuzaka was named MVP for both tournaments.
Without a doubt, the most compelling aspect of the World Baseball Classics thus far has been the rivalry between the budding baseball powerhouses of Japan and South Korea. Not only is the rivalry grounded geopolitically, but it also gives us the opportunity to witness extremely talented baseball players who we otherwise wouldn't know about.
The popularity of baseball in Asia is growing, and much of that can be ascribed to the success of Ichiro Suzuki. The first Japanese position player to sign with an MLB team, Ichiro revolutionized the game of baseball in Asia.
In Ichiro's rookie year, 2001, he won the American League MVP as well as rookie of the year. Three years later, Ichiro set the MLB record for hits in a single season with 262. This year, Ichiro is on pace to break Pete Rose's record for most seasons with 200 or more hits. That would make it 11 consecutive seasons of 200+ hits for Ichiro, probably the most consistent player in Major League Baseball history and arguably the game's greatest hitter.
What the emergence of Ichiro in the American game signified was the true potential of baseball players from East Asian nations. That potential is on display not only in this current generation of Asian baseball players, but also in the upcoming generations.
Every year the Little League World Series is held in Pennsylvania, where teams from all over the world come together to compete. The 2010 champion was from Edogawa, Tokyo, Japan, also the hometown of Red Sox pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka.
The year prior, a team from Chinese Taipei made an improbable run to the finals only to come up short to a Little League team from Chula Vista. They were the first Taiwanese team to reach the championship in 13 years. Despite that dry spell, a team from Chinese Taipei has won the Little League World Series 17 times, second only behind the United States who have 32.
In the inaugural World Baseball Classic, Japan played South Korea and Ichiro spoke about the game. He said, "I want to beat South Korea so badly that the South Koreans won't want to play Japan for another 30 years." The game took place in Anaheim, an area with a massive Korean population. That didn't bode well for the Japanese right fielder that got booed at every opportunity. Korea came out victorious.
Three years later, South Korea had to travel to the Tokyo Dome for round one of the 2009 World Baseball Classic. In the first round, Japan mercy-ruled Korea at a score line of 14-2. Korea, who won the 2008 Olympic Gold medal in Baseball, bounced back with a subsequent 14-0 winover China. Japan's 14-2 victory was the first of five games between Japan and South Korea in the 2009 competition. The Asian rivals faced each other twice in the first round and twice in the second.
The four matchups manifested into an absolutely brilliant ten innings of baseball at Dodger Stadium. Both teams with pride for their countries on the line fueled not the least by Japan's annexation of Korea in the early twentieth century.
With two outs, bottom of the ninth, Japan up 3-2, Korea singled in a run to send the game into extra innings. The next inning, Ichiro came up to bat, hated by half of the stadium and worshipped by the other half, and with two strikes singled to drive in the go-ahead runs and cement Japan's second World Baseball Classic title.
According to the International Baseball Federation, Korea currently ranks third in the world ranking, behind the United States but above Japan, setting up another potential WBC finals rivalry; only if the two Asian powerhouses can, once again, claim America's past time as their own.