Sunday, March 12, 2006

If You Can’t Beat ‘em, Cheat ‘em

The big game has come and gone. I spent the early morning hours in front of my TV at home, coffee in hand, watching Team Japan seriously outplay the US. In every aspect of the game, Japan was superior through the 6th inning, when I had to drive to work.

At 3-3 the game was hanging uncomfortably in the balance, and I had no way to know what was happening during my 15-minute ride to the job. I never imagined I’d be this nervous, or that I’d see a US team play such mediocre baseball in a pressure situation. The Yankee players did nothing to distinguish themselves for the first two-thirds of the ballgame, as Jeter made a fine bunt, but later grounded into a double play in an important situation. A-Rod also ruined a good chance for the US to get on the board early with a double play ball.

Uehara was smart. His lone mistake was on a straight, dead fastball to Chipper Jones. He kept the US hitters from doing too much damage by managing the game batter-to-batter, sinker-to-sinker. It was a good plan and I promise I won’t criticize him anymore. He earned the right to be considered a quality pitcher by handling a tough lineup of Major Leaguers today.

Naoyuki Shimizu, of the Lotte Marines, gave up a home run to Derek Lee that is still mid-flight to Guatemala, but the home run derby ended there. The Japanese like to look at this matchup as a clash of ideologies in some ways, where the all or nothing home run style of the United States reflects something of our national character, while the step-by-step, methodical, sacrifice of individuals for the better of the team is true to the national character of Japan.

When I arrived at work, I went straight to the men’s break room (yes, they’re separate here for some reason) and turned on the game. I watched tensely as Team Japan took advantage of less than sharp pitching by a collection of US relievers. With a runner on third and only one out in the top of the 8th inning, Japanese third baseman Iwamura hit a lazy fly to left field. Nishioka positioned himself at 3rd to tag and score the go ahead run, and Randy Winn showed his hideously weak arm in throwing wide and short of the plate. 4-3 Japan.

Rather embarrassingly, the US contested the run and claimed that Nishioka started early. The umpires, even more embarrassingly, concurred and called an end to the inning with the score 3-3. Sadaharu Oh, translator in tow, complained vigorously to the umpire to no avail. I sat in the break room stunned and shaking my head. It’s not a good way to win. If the US can’t go out and win these games fairly and without help from the bush league umpires, it’s no better than the 1972 Soviet basketball gold medal. I was alone in the lounge, but I knew what was going on outside in the teacher’s room. No one will complain, and no one will cry foul because this is Japan, but I’ll do it for them. The game is tainted and the US can’t be proud of what happened on our soil, with our umpires, in front of our fans.

The Japanese showed some guts by loading the bases against an ineffective Brad Lidge. My co-workers had joined me at this point in the lounge and were all pumped up by Ichiro’s plate appearance. With first base open and a runner on second, waiting to score the go ahead run, Buck Martinez elected to intentionally pass the former AL MVP. Good choice, but it made my Japanese friends cringe. They don’t like that kind of thing here, as Hideki Matsui can attest to, but it seems just dessert for manager Oh, after his tactics in protecting his single season home run record against a pair of foreign born players, Tuffy Rhodes and Alex Cabrera. Fortunately for the US, Lidge did just enough to get out of the inning unscathed.

The bottom of the ninth was full of pressure. My co-workers were kneeling in front of the TV gazing intently as the US mounted their attack. Vernon Wells showed why Toronto has held onto him during their rebuilding project, and Michael Young cashed in on a fielding mistake by the combination of Iwamura and Ogasawara. The lone mistake in a scintillating day of defense for the Japanese. Jeter came to the plate and I thought for sure he was going to be Mr. March for the US, until the ball landed in his lower back, and Steinbrenner somewhere choked on his pasta. Griffey’s at bat was kind of a joke. He worked the count against a clearly shaken Fujikawa of Hanshin, who was overthrowing like crazy. Griffey then took the wildest overswing on 2-0 that I’ve ever seen. The at bat was all downhill from there as he let his adrenaline claim his ability and struck out. With two outs in stepped A-Rod.

For all the criticism he gets for his lack of clutch, whatever that means, he had the most clutch hit in US baseball’s young WBC history. With two outs, A-Rod didn’t crush a monster walk-off grand slam, but rather sliced a little liner past the outstretched glove of Fujikawa, which landed between shortstop Kawasaki and second baseman Nishioka. Michael Young scored and the game was decided.

In the teacher’s room, no one has really spoken of the result except to offer congratulations, but I feel responsible to show that we, as Americans, don’t value the kind of victory that we received today. Yes, we ultimately overcame our struggles to claim the final result, but is it really satisfying when we should have been trailing anyway? I can enjoy the win to some degree, because our 9th inning rally may have yielded several more runs giving us a clean comeback victory, but what of the next batter in the Japanese 8th? Would he have extended the lead to 5-3? More? We’ll never know.

UPDATE: Daily Yomiuri writer Jim Allen had this to say after the game.
UPDATE: The critiques just keep on coming. Internationalizing the umpire crews is a must.