Football, they say, is a funny old game, but it has at least always made more sense to me than that other ball game they like to play here. Unlike most of my countrymen, I don’t actually have anything against baseball, I know what an RBI is, and I have been known to spend the occasional and most enjoyable evening at Koshien watching the Hanshin Tigers. I even understand that, despite matches taking twice as long to complete as a game of football, the number of variables involved in baseball means that even the top teams only win about 60% of the time – and the worst teams still win about 40% – so they end up needing to play 150 times each a season to decide who is the best. What I’ve never quite got, however, is why after playing six times a week, every week, for the best part of seven months, they then suddenly feel the need to discard their league tables completely, and determine the actual champions with a handful of ‘post-season’ matches over the space of just 28 days.
The recent World Baseball Classic is, of course, a special case. A commitment to the packed schedules of the North American, Japanese, and various other national leagues means that one month in pre-season is all the global competition is ever going to get, and a knockout format is therefore the only viable option. It does, however, seem strange to me that the same countries end up playing each other repeatedly in separate halves of the draw, and that while everything is do-or-die at the very end, the earlier rounds are full of repechage matches designed to give losing teams a second chance. The end result was that five of the nine matches played by each of this year’s finalists, Japan and South Korea, were against each other, and either side could still easily have made it to the showpiece occasion at Dodger Stadium last week even if they had lost all four of their previous meetings.
As it happened, it was two games all going into the final, and while extra innings may just have underlined further how little there is to choose between them, the eventual victory for Tatsunori Hara’s ‘Samurai Japan’ team deserves to be recognised and praised just as any other world title would. Japanese baseball is currently on a real high, with a succession of stars like Hideki Matsui and Daisuke Matsuzaka gracing the ballparks Stateside, and it is easy to forget that when Ichiro Suzuki led the batting averages in his debut season in the Major Leagues back in 2001, he was the first Japanese-born position player ever to even be there in the first place. Now that Japan has won both of the fledgling WBC tournaments played so far, perhaps the United States could do with shedding its ‘World Series’ mentality, and – just as England has had to with the sports it gave the world – accept that it could probably learn a few things from the way the ‘foreigners’ play their sport.
Still, it might not all be good news for Japan. Compounded by low birth rates and a shrinking child population, there are fears that the rise of football over the last 15 years could affect Japanese baseball to the point where the current high will be remembered as the peak before the fall. High school baseball at Koshien is a jewel in the Japanese calendar, but a drop in the number of children playing threatens the quality of both the tournaments themselves and the subsequent supply of players to the professional leagues. Perhaps, then, this innovative concept of having a world tournament actually feature teams from different countries should serve as inspiration for modernisation in Japan as well. Wider visions and less prescriptiveness will help ensure that the current momentum can be built on, rather than lost. With its stated aim of ‘creating sports clubs where you can enjoy whatever sport you want, not only football’, perhaps the baseball authorities need to swallow their pride and become a closer part of the J. League’s own 100 Year Vision.