Special Report

World Baseball

You may not know who won the just concluded World Baseball Classic. Sorry, ESPN, it wasn't Cuba.

By 3.23.06

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When Trivial Pursuit first came out, I astonished my first three opponents the first time I played, on the first question. "Who is the Babe Ruth of Japan?" the card asked. "Sadaharu Oh," I answered.

Oh-san, as he is now known from respect of his years, managed Team Japan in the just-concluded World Baseball Classic's final game. Japan won over Cuba 10-6 Monday night in a splendid exhibition of quality baseball at the San Diego Padres' Petco Park. And the matchup stirred and ultimately satisfied the imaginations and cravings of real baseball fans. Cuba, the mysterious hidden rumored powerhouse that appears only for international competition, where stars once in a while escape a dictatorial regime whose Maximum Leader fancies he was a great pitcher in his youth (he wasn't). Japan, the determined imitator of the West, seen for years as a charming miniature, with its fierce devotion to perfection and honor on the field, with its first best players now making it to the American major leagues on merit.

I came to the WBC late, just for the final game, much the way I get around to the springtime college basketball tourneys (where I have caught on at about the round of 16). What a fine addition the WBC would make on an annual basis to this rite of quality sport. Whether it will happen or not, who knows? The commissioner aside, the lords of major league baseball have not liked it much. And the establishment baseball press hasn't treated it well. Dan Shaughnessy of the Boston Globe did not even deign to mention the final game's final score in his final dispatch. He was there. The broadcasters mentioned him. I guess he'd have rather been out with the boys in Ft. Myers.

"REAL BASEBALL FANS," I SAID EARLIER. By that, I mean those who love the game for the game's sake, who will watch kids or minor leaguers, or indeed foreigners, play, just for the joy of it. I mean those who carry gloves in their automobile's trunks for the chance of a game of catch. I mean those who marvel at the flight of a ball thrown by a talented player, at the flash ballet around second base, at the magnificent trajectory of a fly ball, at the fleet run of an outfielder to chase it down.

Major League Baseball in the U.S. has been plagued by star power and money, by pounding so-called music in the stadiums, by the culture of the Jumbo-Tron, even by strikes -- labor actions, that is, where the players refuse to play. All that sense was absent from the WBC, where indeed of 173 major leaguers participating in the tournament, only two (Akinori Otsuka and Ichiro Suzuki) made it to the final.

Just as with the NCAA basketball tournament, you spend much of your time keeping track of names in the WBC. Only it's harder. Japan's superb starting pitcher, Daisuke (I think of him as Duke) Matsuzaka, regularly brought a hummer of a fastball to the plate at 95 miles per hour. And he could throw nasty breaking pitches. He was named the tournament's most valuable player, and no wonder. Cuba's third baseman, Yulieski Gourriel, batted .433 for the series and turned in spectacular plays at the hot corner. I understand he's only 20 years old.

Does Cuba's long isolation contribute to the funny first names so many of the players have? I wonder. Yoandy? Vicyohandry? Two guys named Yulieski? Yadel? Jonder?

ESPN COVERED THE WBC, with most games on broadcast TV, and many on high definition. There was also a series subscription available so games could be watched on-line, a service the NCAA basketball tourney offers, too. It seems outlandish to me to watch any TV show on my computer; I'm probably outside the age demographic for such things. And ESPN assigned top-line baseball announcers to the games, including the dreary know-it-all (but really not-know-much) Joe Morgan, and Jon Miller of the classic baseball pipes, for play by play.

But in the final, ESPN displayed a disturbing attitude on-air. They had assigned a broadcast reporter, Jose Mota, to the Cuban dugout, where he translated remarks and inside info and relayed team goings-on. There was no one in the Japanese dugout. ESPN had a camera feed from Parque Central in Havana and regularly cut to shots of great crowds watching the game on a giant screen TV, cheering on their team. No camera in Tokyo or in any of the most likely available Japanese-American enclaves. Is it so hard to find an American broadcaster who speaks Japanese?

Joe Morgan couldn't get enough of talking up the "passion" of the Cuban players, this while the Japanese players were practically jumping out of their skin with emotion. He commentated on a split screen contrast between a Cuban batter and Japanese major leaguer Ichiro Suzuki's hitting styles. The Cuban player, according to Morgan, braced on his back leg like a real major leaguer, and had a "real major league hitting style," while Suzuki "dragged his back foot" and simply "put the ball in play." Never mind that Ichiro Suzuki has been the most successful hitter in the major leagues for the last five years.

On and on it went, this implicit denigration of the Japanese and glorification of the Cubans. And I strongly suspect it took place because most of the Cuban players were black, with familiar body styles and musculature and ways of moving, while the Japanese were smaller and quicker and somehow...other-like. I observe as well a contrast on the Cuban team: The players were black, the coaches and managers were white. No network embodies PC worse than ESPN. That racial contrast, which would have been chewed over ad nauseam in an American team, didn't raise an eyebrow or a remark.

Explicitly, then: ESPN, and especially Joe Morgan, made invidious racialist remarks about Japanese players, while at the same time ignoring a racial contrast in team Cuba that would have caused ESPN (and probably Joe Morgan) to criticize that team, had it been from any other country than Cuba.

Maybe the grandees of ESPN simply expected Cuba to win. Cuba had won 33 of 37 prior matchups with Japan. But that's no excuse.

AT THE FENWAY FRANKS STAND AT OUR LOCAL MALL, Paul, who runs the joint, with a TV perpetually tuned to sports behind him, said he had watched the whole tourney. "I subscribed to it, so I could watch the games on my computer." In contrast to me, Paul expressed disappointment in the final matchup, because "I didn't know anybody."

Between me and Paul lies the mainstream baseball fan, the natural and inevitable audience for the WBC, long may it splendidly wave. Next time let's get some speakers of Oriental languages involved in the broadcast.

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About the Author

Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts.