Right Field: All of Asia should embrace baseball
It may come as a surprise to some, but no other game on the continent has enjoyed as much success on the international stage
The Kiwis, as is their tradition, performed a pre-game haka. This one was particularly spirited and clearly meant to intimidate their opponents, Taiwan. But rugby this ain't and when the game started it was the team from Taipei who dominated with superior pitching and hitting in winning 10-0. The World Baseball Classic (WBC) is back and Asia will, once again, be playing a pivotal role. It may not appear that way on first blush but there is no team sport that Asian athletes are more proficient at on the international stage than baseball. In fact, it's not even close. Japan are not only the two-time reigning world champions but the country is home to the most lucrative professional sports league, Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB), on the continent.
Pick a team sport, any sport, and tell me where Asian athletes have been more successful. Soccer? Please. Japan are the only country ranked in Fifa's top 30 and while there are a few professional leagues on the continent, most of the Asian nationals who play in the top leagues in Europe are marginal at best. In basketball, the numbers and results are even more depressing. There are no native Asians playing in the NBA. But Asian baseball, most notably Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, has sent a number of players to the major leagues and many of them in a starring role.
I am not deluded enough to think this makes baseball Asia's favourite game. That distinction clearly lies with soccer. Baseball is merely the game Asia is most proficient at. The 2009 WBC final at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, between Japan and South Korea, was not only a tense and thrilling affair, it was a textbook lesson in how to properly play the game. Baseball in it purest form, both teams executed the fundamentals combined with outstanding defence.
Ironically, it's the same recipe the San Francisco Giants used to win this year's World Series and a style that the supremely talented international squads, like the US, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, would do well to adapt when the main draw of the tournament kicks off in the spring of 2013. This week in Taiwan, four countries - New Zealand, the Philippines, Thailand and the hosts - are competing for one spot in the main draw. The challenge for baseball in Asia now is not to grow the game in the Orient, where it thrives, but in the rest of the continent, in places like Thailand and the Philippines.
Although baseball seems to have little profile in New Zealand, the Kiwi squad features three players who are playing in the US minor leagues. Not only does the Philippines boast one former major leaguer and a couple of minor league players, but they are ranked 34th in the world, 11 spots higher than their national basketball team - and that country is absolutely silly for hoops.
But when it comes to irony and surprise, few can touch Thailand's entry in the WBC qualifier. The line-up they fielded in game one featured a designated hitter who has played 18 seasons in the big leagues. Johnny Damon is only 231 hits shy of 3,000, a number that ensures enshrinement in the Hall of Fame. But after being released by the Cleveland Indians in August, the competitive juices were still flowing so he decided to help his mother's home country try to qualify for the main draw and, at the very least, also audition for a job next year with a major league team. However, the Thais lost 8-2 to the Philippines, while 39-year-old Damon could only manage one hit in three at-bats. Now if you can't hit the likes of Jon Jon Robles and Darwin De La Cazada then your chances against Justin Verlander or C.C. Sabathia can't be that good and it would appear Damon's major league career is over. Ironically, the Philippines were hoping Giants pitcher and two-time Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum would follow Damon's lead and play for his Filipino mother's native country as well. Turns out they didn't need him.
Surprisingly, there are more than 20 countries that have players under contract to major league organisations, including 13 from Germany and nine from South Africa who will be playing in the third edition of the World Baseball Classic next year. The game is certainly growing and in the most surprising places. However, there is much work to do, even in the US where it lags behind the NFL and can no longer be called America's game. But Asia's game? Until further notice.