Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Congratulations Japan! Now why is the NPB so boring?


The Final


The WBC final was the 5th time that Japan and Korea faced off in the tournament. Although Japan had beaten them handily in their first meeting, Korea had won the next two before Japan won the final game in the second round to even the series at 2-2. Both teams won their semi-final games easily to set up the winner-take-all championship game.

And it was a great game! Japan had a 3-1 lead after 7 but gave up a run in the 8th to set up a thrilling finish. In the bottom of the ninth, phenom Yu Darvish was brought on to close it. After two walks and two strikeouts, Bum Ho Lee was batting for Korea. Down to his last strike, he reached out and poked a wicked slider into left field to tie the game and send us to extras. A Classic Comeback!

But the Japanese were not fazed. In the top of the 10th, two singles sandwiched around a sacrifice bunt put men on 2nd and 3rd with 2 out and Ichiro at the plate. Apparently the manager, In Sik Kim, asked that Ichiro be walked, but the Korean catcher misunderstood and so they pitched to him. It was a fatal mistake as Ichiro stroked a perfect single to center field to score 2 runs and lead Japan to their 2nd consecutive world championship as Darvish shut the Koreans down in the 10th.

Well deserved!

A couple of points to make. First, I think the baseball world recognizes that the Asian game, based on preparation, fundamentals, teamwork, and speed and defense is just as good, if not better, than the power game used by the more "traditional" baseball countries. Two world championships and an Olympic title are proof. Mike Bauman wrote a good piece on this here.

I'd like to stress the preparation aspect a bit more though. The Japanese team began training on February 16th, nearly 3 weeks before their first game. The WBC is a much more serious event here than elsewhere, as shown by the 37,000 fans who watched their first training session in Miyazaki. The first televised game in the Classic, which Japan won 14-2, was watched by 37% of households in Japan. Make no mistake, this country takes immense pride in their team and they respond by training much harder than the other teams. And with the series taking place in March, after a long offseason, preparation is the key to winning - the Japanese made far fewer mistakes than their opposition and I think this is primarily due to their extended camp.

Furthermore, some people say that other countries don't send their best pitchers. This is true, but again shows just how important the WBC is to Japan. Everybody here wants to play for their country. But I'd like to add that Matsuzaka, Darvish, and Iwakuma make as strong a starting trio as any other country can offer. Roy Oswalt, the loser in the semifinal, is no slouch; he was simply outpitched by Matsuzaka, who repeated as the series MVP. In sports, injuries often rob a team of its stars; depth is critical to success and perhaps Japan is just as deep as the US or Cuba when it comes to needing 4 starting pitchers. Simply put, this is not an excuse, Japan earned their championships fair and square.

So why is Japanese baseball "boring"?

So Japanese baseball is now confirmed to be the best in the world. But the general feeling among many baseball fans living here is that the NPB game is not that exciting. I myself have agreed with this opinion for some time. When I first moved to Japan, I went to many games, at every stadium around the country, and watched plenty more on TV. I collected baseball cards and was quite knowledgeable about the game. But after a few years, my interest began to wane. Watching the WBC, I wondered how such well-played ball could have turned me off the game.

The first reason is game time. The American game is faster paced, averaging about 2:45, while Japanese games average about 3:15. Thirty minutes may not seem like a large difference, but considering baseball has very little action to begin with, that extra half-hour gives the impression of the game dragging on. Interestingly, the Japanese are trying to shorten their games as an ecological initiative! I don't know if it worked last year or not, but it's a positive step.

Secondly, American stadiums are much more pleasant, particularly those in the minor leagues. In Japan, we have too many domes (a necessity due to the rainy season that ruins much of the early summer here) and other stadiums are often old and have poor viewing conditions due to fences or other safety measures. To be fair, Fullcast Miyagi Stadium in Sendai, home to the Rakuten Golden Eagles, is a great, fan-oriented park. And Hiroshima is opening a new stadium in 2009, which I'll visit. So I'm hoping that things are changing for the better in this regard.

Another annoyance is the cheering section that populates the outfield seats in every stadium. Although I found them unique and entertaining early on, even sitting with them a few times at Jingu Stadium, they became tiresome after seeing so many games. Constantly spouting the same cheers in the same manner regardless of the circumstances or the score, the oendan seem to miss the point. I understand the need to belong, all fandom is based in some part on our desire to be part of a successful group, but baseball is a game that allows you to relax and enjoy the flow of the action; the rote recitation of a cheer when your team is down 14-0 in a spring training game seems to contradict the purpose of watching the game.

The domination of the Giants on TV was very frustrating, especially when broadcasts were cut off before the game ended. But the advent of cable has eliminated this concern. But on a related note, there are only 12 teams here, so we see plenty of the same matchups. Giants-Tigers, Dragons-Carp, Lions-Hawks, etc. There are not a lot of interesting battles. Interleague play has added some variety, but there are only so many games I can watch between two teams. (This problem is now taking place in MLB as well, with 19 interminable Red Sox-Yankee games each season.)

There are other minor criticisms. The extension of the season for rainout dates is silly, the season should finish with all teams playing on the same day. Six teams in the playoffs is too many. The overuse of the sacrifice bunt early in games, especially against a struggling pitcher, has always bothered me. The lack of a killer instinct in many pitchers, leading to way too many full counts, is one of the reasons games take so long. And tie games are no fun.

So we have an apparent contradiction. I like good baseball, Japan plays good baseball, but I don't like Japanese baseball. I think I've given several valid reasons on how this situation developed. But watching Samurai Japan over the past few weeks has given me a new appreciation for the way they play the game. I'm going to try to watch more games this year and see if things have improved for the fan such as myself. I'll keep you all posted, but in the meantime, let me know what you think!

Best,

Sean

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