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Big in Asia but World Baseball Classic still seeks US home run

Quadrennial baseball event, popular in Asia, wants same respect as World Series

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The World Baseball Classic got off to a rocky start in 2006, when initially reluctant Japan won the championship in the San Diego final, and is now hugely popular in Japan and other Asian countries.   © Reuters

The 2017 World Baseball Classic -- a popular international sporting event created by U.S.-based Major League Baseball -- will get underway in March amid its struggles to achieve the same worldwide recognition as the annual American World Series.

The now quadrennial international baseball competition will be held for the fourth time since 2006 and consists of teams from 16 countries. The first rounds will take place in Tokyo, Seoul, Miami and Guadalajara, Mexico, before play-offs are staged in Tokyo and San Diego and the final championship games are held in Los Angeles.

Rod Manfred, the commissioner of Major League Baseball, the professional baseball organization in the U.S. and Canada, will attend the opening rounds in Seoul and Tokyo. This comes after reports that the MLB is considering dropping its sponsorship of the WBC, although MLB officials deny the rumors.

WBC games are not popular in the U.S. ESPN, the leading U.S. sports television network, stopped televising the games in North America in 2013. The MLB's own channel, MLBTV still airs the games, but primarily as filler between vastly more popular MLB games since American baseball fans are not particularly interested in games before the official MLB regular season begins in early April.

WBC games are regarded in North America as merely an adjunct to spring training. Some of the MLB's American stars play on Team USA. Some do not. MLB teams and fans worry that star players may get hurt in what they consider relatively meaningless exhibition games that are being used to get players into shape for the regular season. New York Yankees star first baseman Mark Texiera, for example, fractured his wrist playing in the 2009 WBC and never completely recovered.

The global tournament, however, does have value for the MLB, which created the tourney in 2006 and controls global rights to the WBC, because it serves as a means to grow an international market for the MLB games.

In contrast to North America, the WBC games draw high ratings in other countries where baseball has also become the "national pastime." This includes Japan, South Korea and Taiwan in Asia and the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Cuba in Latin America.

TV ratings hit

Japan's thrilling extra-inning victory over Taiwan in 2013 made it the most-watched cable TV program in Taiwan's history. Japan's defeat of the Dutch team two days later was the most viewed sporting event in Japan that year. The 2006 WBC final was watched by so many people in Tokyo that water pressure in the city dropped by 25% each time fans made bathroom runs between innings.

Global growth in baseball is sporadic, however. Some countries where baseball fever runs high, like Cuba, have comparatively weak economies. Baseball has still to catch on in big potential markets like Brazil and China.

In efforts to promote the game in China, the MLB has spent more than $100 million, staging some games there and bringing American coaches.

But unlike in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, China has no players competing in MLB and soccer remains much more popular. Baseball was introduced to Japan in 1872 by the Americans and rapidly gained popularity. The Americans also introduced the game to Korea in 1905, while the Japanese, for their part, introduced it to Taiwan in 1906, when that island country was part of their colonial empire.

The WBC got off to a rocky start in 2006 when the opening rounds were held in Tokyo. Nippon Professional Baseball, Japan's counterpart to the MLB, did not like the idea that the MLB, having created the WBC, was intruding on its territory by holding most of its games in Japan. The two parties eventually agreed that the MLB would be in charge of the WBC games, but then feuded over how to split the revenues. When that issue was finally settled, the NPB players' association threatened to boycott the event because it considered WBC to be interfering with spring training.

The Yomiuri Shimbun media group, which owns the Yomiuri Giants, Japan's most popular team, persuaded Japan's baseball superstar Sadaharu Oh, who achieved a world record of 868 home runs during his career with the Yomiuri Giants, to manage the national team in effort to attract players. "I'll do it for the welfare of Japanese baseball," Oh said when accepting the position. "For the future, for 50 years from now."

But some players were not impressed. Ichiro Suzuki, one of the best hitters in professional baseball, reportedly told acquaintances: "What difference does it make if some old guy is going to manage the team? That doesn't make it a real event."

But Oh was persistent and finally persuaded Ichiro, who became the team leader, and other big stars to play.

Nationalist spats

The opening games were also marked by fierce nationalism. In an apparent reference to South Korea. Ichiro said, "I want to win in a way that will make the opposition think they won't be able to beat us for another 30 years."

South Korea, which won the first game against Japan, appeared to take revenge on Ichiro when he was hit in the hip by a pitched ball.

Ichiro called his team's defeat "a disgrace" and told American reporters later: "The pressure of trying to beat South Korea is something totally different than trying to beat the United States."

Japanese fans were also outraged when the Japanese team suffered a defeat at the hands of the U.S. team in the 2006 series because of a controversial call by an American umpire. The Sankei Sports newspaper claimed that pressure from the American public "played a role in the bad call."

"It's pathetic. They should use umpires from third party countries," said famed baseball manager Senichi Hoshino. This complaint appeared to ignore the fact that the NPB had rejected a MLB proposal to use Asian umpires because the Japanese felt that Taiwanese and South Korean umpires would be biased toward their teams.

But Japan went on to win that series, defeating Cuba in the final in San Diego, which was reportedly watched by 60 million Japanese, making it one of the most watched sporting events in the country's history.

It was an ironic ending for a team that had not wanted to participate in the first place. It was also a landmark victory because the world got to see just how good Japanese baseball really was.

The American players were out of shape, out of practice and, at times, performed like amateurs. Remarking on the Japanese players, Team USA Manager Buck Martinez said: "You saw the value of their practice regimen, taking 100 ground balls a day, 200 swings a day -- much more than we do. It's what we should be doing."

Japan went on to win the next WBC title in 2009, while the Dominican Republic won the last series in 2013. As for the upcoming series, Japan and the Dominican Republic are seen as the favorites along with perennial powerhouse Cuba. But do not overlook the U.S., which is bringing some top MLB talent this year, and could even win its first WBC medal -- despite the fact that American U.S. fans continue to view any game played in March as only an exhibition.

Robert Whiting is a Japan-based author and journalist; his books include "You Gotta Have Wa" and " The Chrysanthemum and the Bat."

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