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America’s Pastime No More (if it ever was)

March 26, 2009

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 This past Monday, Japan and South Korea played in the championship finale of the World Baseball Classic (WBC), an international baseball tournament involving some of the best professional players from nations around the globe.

Though the competition was not widely appreciated by many fans in the USA, the finale  itself was scintillating. It was a tense, closely contested struggle that Japan finally won 5-3 in 10 innings, with Ichiro Suzuki hitting the decisive 2-run single.  The game was marked by very good pitching, a few clutch hits, outstanding defense, and several memorable moments.  

Held in Los Angeles’ Dodger Stadium, the atmosphere for the finale was electric and reminiscent of a World Cup soccer match. Estimated at over 50,000 people, the crowd had a significant–if not majority–of Asian fans, particularly Korean and Japanese (Americans) rooting for their favorite team. The Korean fans were particularly colorful as they beat their noise-making  “Thunderstix” together and chanted “Dae Han Min Gook.”

Beyond all the festivities, however, there was perhaps a larger significance about the game that many Americans claim as their national pastime.

As Arash Markazi put it explicity in the title of his article for SI.com,  “In WBC final Japan, Korea prove this is no longer America’s game.” For Markazi, the manner in which the Japanese and Korean teams play the game (with their emphasis on selflessness, discipline, and attention to detail) represents baseball at its best–one with which American culture is increasingly out of touch:

Even before the game, watching Korea and Japan go through practice is almost like watching one of those Tom Emanski instructional tapes on a constant loop. Only the players taking infield, outfield, ground balls and fly balls at game speed a couple hours before the game aren’t kids at a camp, they’re grown professionals with the same desire to play the game as a kid in camp.

If that seems like a concept as foreign as watching the Nippon Ham Fighters, it’s because you’d never catch an American team doing that. They’re paid to play the game, not to take infield and outfield practice. Why practice fundamentals when you can spend that time talking to your agent or friends sitting behind home plate?

This isn’t a criticism of American baseball as much as it is an appreciation for the way Korea and Japan approach the game and a realization that the game, in its purest unselfish sense, is better suited for the Korean and Japanese culture than the current American culture now.

While most American players, “think about the money and their next contract,” as Tommy Lasorda said before the final, the game is tailor-made for both the Japanese and Koreans. In Japan, baseball often draws comparisons to the samurai spirit. It’s all about the sacrifice, the team, playing disciplined and respecting the game. In a nutshell, it’s all about the “wa,” which is the oldest recorded name of Japan and basically means unity, harmony, peace and balance.

Markazi’s comments were echoed by some other US media outlets, where the disappointing showing by the American team (which was eliminated in the semifinals by Japan) is seen to reflect a broader cultural significance. Writing about the loss to Japan, William Rhoden, for instance, asked, “Did the United States lose a semifinal game on Sunday? Or have we lost the game itself?”

And baseball icon Tommy Lasorda lamented about the US defeat, “Can you believe this? Look at the score. I feel so bad about this…. I’m very, very disappointed. We had high hopes. This is the second time we were supposed to win. We taught these people the game.”

This is a change in tune by Lasorda who was in quite the patriotic lather before the WBC, declaring that “Baseball is America’s game. It doesn’t belong to these other countries. We’ve got to best ’em, because they want to beat us bad. They want to beat the United States because they figure, they can beat the United States, that’s a big feather in their cap. Well, we can’t let them put any feathers in their cap. We’ve got to win this thing. And we’ve got to bear down and believe and be proud that you’re wearing the uniform of their greatest country in the world.”

Despite being overshadowed in popularity by football and other sports, baseball in the USA is not merely a game but also thought of as a defining facet of American tradition. From people like Ken Burns to George Will, baseball occupies a romantic place in the American national imagination, reflecting the essence of the so-called “American spirit,” or as Albert Spalding put it:

I claim that Base Ball owes its prestige as our National Game to the fact that as no other form of sport it is the exponent of American Courage, Confidence, Combativeness; American Dash, Discipline, Determination; American Energy, Eagerness, Enthusiasm; American Pluck, Persistency, Performance; American Spirit, Sagacity, Success; American Vim, Vigor, Virility.

Base Ball is the American Game par excellence because its playing demands Brain and Brawn, and American manhood supplies these ingredients in quantity sufficient to spread over the entire continent.  

The irony in all this is that some recent research has suggested that baseball, contrary to popular myth, was not originally “invented” by Abner Doubleday but was descended from different European sports in England and France. Moreover, the international spread of baseball as a sport has been ongoing for over a century with its adoption by Latin America, the Caribbean, and Asia.

The WBC itself is part of Major League Baseball’s broader attempt to “globalize” the sport in the same way that the NBA has done with basketball and that FIFA has done with football (or soccer, as it is known in the USA). As a result, the MLB is increasingly international in the composition of its rosters with players from Latin American and Asian nations, and the skill level of players in those regions developing as a result.

Perhaps, it’s time for the saying “it’s as American as baseball, apple pie, and motherhood” to be revised.

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One Comment leave one →
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