Pool A of the World Baseball Classic has two traditional powerhouses, Japan and Cuba, and two countries where baseball is a niche sport, Brazil and China.
Go below the jump for the preview:
About the Venue: The Fukuoka Dome (officially the Fukuoka YAHOO! JAPAN Dome) opened in 1993 and holds about 38 and a half thousand people. The home of the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks, the dome was the first in Japan to have a retractable roof, which was a plot-point in the 1995 B-Movie, Gamera: Guardian of the Universe.
About the Pool: This is a pool that has two giants and two minnows. The giants are Japan and Cuba, the minnows are China and Brazil. Japan and Cuba will almost certainly leave this pool, while Brazil and the Chinese will be playing to try and avoid relegation to a qualifying round next time. Should Cuba or Japan lose a game to either China or Brazil, it will be one of the biggest upsets in sports history.
About the Country: Japan is an ancient nation, traditionally said to have been founded in 660 BC. For most of that time, it existed with relatively little change and contact with the outside world, save for the occasional war with Korea or internal feudalistic battles. That all changed in 1853, when a small force of the United States Navy, led by Admiral Matthew Perry, arrived in Japan to demand that it be opened to traffic. The arrival of Western influence shocked the Japanese, leading to reforms and programs that led the nation to grow from hermit kingdom to one of the world’s leading empires within a century, a period that ended only with Japan’s defeat in WWII. Scarred by the war and with a new constitution that prevented it from actually having a military, Japan became an economic power, a hub of global trade and technological innovation, and remains the world’s third-largest economy despite slow growth since the late 1980s. Fun fact- It would have been entirely possible for a Japanese person to have been born under the rule of feudal leaders and died in an atomic bombing. This would be roughly the equivalent of somebody in the West being born in the middle ages and dying in the 20th century.
Baseball history: Japan was introduced to baseball by a teacher named Horace Wilson, who introduced it to some of his students there. And in the decades after that, it’s popularity skyrocketed as Japan became more industrialized- although it remained strictly amateur until the 1930s. The beginnings of Japan’s professional baseball came about because of Major League Baseball in general and Babe Ruth in particular, as a barnstorming tour by the Great Bambino caused baseball to become even more popular than before. In 1936, the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper conglomerate founded the first professional team in Japan- the Yomiuri Giants- primarily out of players who had distinguished themselves against the Americans. After WWII, the Japanese again turned to baseball, founding their current professional league, the NPB, in 1950. Baseball remains the most popular sport in Japan, and the National High School Baseball Championship is a cultural phenomenon in the country perhaps even greater than America’s “March Madness” for college basketball.
Japan’s baseball league: Nippon Pro Baseball, or NPB, is made up of two leagues (Central and Pacific) of six teams, with the Pacific using the DH and the Central not. It’s level of play can vary wildly from team-to-team, but in general it’s usually said that NPB is about “AAAA” in quality- not as good as MLB, but better than America’s AAA leagues. In addition, there are also minor leagues and Independent leagues in Japan, as well as a thriving semi-pro and amateur baseball culture.
Japanese MLB players: The first Japanese MLB player was Masanori Murakami, who’s brief MLB career occurred almost accidentally: He had come to the minor league system of the San Francisco Giants in 1964 as something of an exchange student, but he performed well enough that the Giants called him up. When the Nankai Hawks- his NPB team- asked the Giants to return him after that year, a dispute broke out between the two teams, although a compromise was eventually reached that allowed Murakami to pitch another season in the big leagues before returning to Japan. After that, no Japanese ballplayers came to MLB until Hideo Nomo arrived in 1995. In total, 57 Japanese-born players (including some westerners born to servicemen in Japan) have played in Major League Baseball… but only one of them, Kazuo Matsui, will be playing for them this time around, as most of Japan’s MLB stars have either retired from international play or have decided to focus on spring training.
Other than Kazuo Matsui, some westerners might recognize the name of Shinnosuke Abe, a veteran catcher who is coming off a Triple Crown year and who played in the 2009 WBC. He’s occasionally been rumored to come overseas, but he never has.
Highest achievers: Almost every player on Japan’s roster has reached the very highest level of Japanese baseball, but a few stand out more than others (including Abe and Matsui): Seiichi Uchikawa was the 2011 Pacific League MVP, Toshiya Sugiuchi won the PL MVP in 2004 Masahiro Tanaka (possibly the best pitcher in Japan) won the Sawamura Award (their Cy Young) in 2011, while Tadashi Settsu won in last season.
Outlook: Excellent. The only real threat to Japan in this group is Cuba. A loss to either China or Brazil would be an embarrassment to the Japanese on a national scale.
About the Country: The world’s most populous nation, and expected to within a decade or two become the world’s largest economy as far as raw data is concerned, “China” is almost always meant to designate the People’s Republic of China, which has ruled the mainland since emerging victorious in the Chinese Civil War of the 30s and 40s (with an interruption during WWII). Reforms in the 80s and 90s have essentially led to the abandonment of Communism as economic policy, but politically the the Chinese Communist Party remains the only force with any actual power. Fun fact- China is the birthplace of fireworks, paper, paper money and gunpowder.
Baseball history: Baseball actually has a long history in China, being brought there in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by students who had studied abroad. By the 20s and 30s, it had become pretty popular, particularly around Shanghai, and it was played by both sides of China’s Civil War, to the extent that one alternate name for the game in China translated to “army ball”. Even after Communists took over the country, it was still being fostered in some corners of Chinese society, especially the military, where it had a champion in Marshal He Long, an early force in the People’s Republic. He (no pun intended) believed that baseball made an excellent training regimen, and encouraged it’s play in military units. But then, in the 1960s, it all came to a halt. There are three possible reasons for this, all of which likely have some credibility. For one, Long was purged by the Chinese Communist Party. For another, the Cultural Revolution all-but-banned baseball as an American decadence. And lastly, the economics downturn that came from the disastrous “great leap forward” would have made it difficult for those remaining baseballers to have done much.
Baseball did not truly return to the mainland until the 1980s and 1990s, when it became an Olympic sport and China began to move away from Communism as a economic model. Chinese interest in baseball hit it’s most recent peak in the lead-up to the Beijing Olympics, but since then it remains, at best, a niche sport, kept alive only due to outside funding (usually from the USA and Japan) and small amounts of government funding that have apparently decreased greatly since baseball lost it’s Olympics status.
China’s baseball league: China has a small professional league. Well, maybe. It’s notoriously hard to find reliable information about it, and I have read in one place that it was disbanded due to lack of sponsorship but on the WBC roster PDF it lists most of the Chinese players as still being with teams from that league.
Chinese MLB players: With the exception of Harry Kingman– a westerner born to missionaries in China- there have been no Major League players born on mainland China.
Notable names: John McLaren, who has managed the Mariners and Nationals, will be managing Team China.
Highest achievers: Ray Chang, the San Francisco-born son of Chinese Immigrants, has reached as high as AAA and was instrumental in Team China’s upset of Taipei in 2009. Besides him, Wang Wei is a catcher who hit the first HR in WBC history back in 2006 and who is still technically a member of the Seattle Mariners organization, Dawei Zhu was the first Chinese to be drafted by an NPB team, and pitcher Jiangang Lu spent time in the Japanese Minors and was the winning pitcher against Taipei in 2009.
Bad. Perhaps had Bruce Chen played they might have had an edge against Brazil or perhaps stuck around a few good innings against Japan or Cuba, but without him, they are almost certainly the weakest team in the pool, and will likely only win a game if everything goes their way.
About the Country: The island that is now Cuba was claimed for Spain by Christopher Columbus, and it remained Spain’s until 1898, when the United States aided Cuban rebels in overthrowing the Spanish hold on the island during the Spanish-American War. For the next half-century or so, Cuba went through a series of governments but remained friendly to the United States, until dictator Fulgencio Batista was overthrown by communist rebels led by Fidel Castro in the late 1950s. Since then, the history of Cuba has been filled with incidents that anyone who paid any attention in history class would recognize, The Bay of Pigs Invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis chief among them. There remains an embargo by the United States upon the country, and although there have been some slight easings on it’s restrictions in Washington and some reforms in Havana, it is unlikely to go anywhere anytime soon unless something drastically changes. The current president of Cuba is Fidel’s younger brother, Raul. Fun fact- Due to the embargo, many cars from the 1950s remain in service.
Baseball history: Baseball first became popular in Cuba as a form of revolution against their colonial Spanish overlords. By playing baseball, and not soccer or bullfighting, the Cubans were building a new culture, separate from the old culture. And when they became free from the Spanish after Spanish-American War, they continued to play it. Cuba was a hotbed of baseball, producing some of the best players in the world- although the tragedy of segregation kept many of their finest players from ever playing in Major League Baseball. Such was the popularity of baseball that from 1954 to 1960 Havana even had it’s own team in the International League, the Havana Sugar Kings. But the rise of Fidel Castro and the Communist Party’s nationalization of Cuba’s baseball structure, as well as the US boycott on the island nation, changed everything. Since the 1960s, Cuba has been the forbidden isle of baseball, with it’s technically-amateur national team dominating international competition until professionals began to arrive in the 2000s.
As an aside, the tale that Fidel Castro was offered a contract by a Major League organization when he was young is almost certainly false. Castro was by some accounts a pretty good amateur pitcher with an okay curveball, but not a top prospect by any means.
Cuba’s baseball league: Cuba’s main baseball league, the National Series, is a strictly amateur affair in line with the country’s Communist system. While players may be given jobs, meal money, and other privileges, there are no salaries. The CNS has 16 teams and plays during the winter. A smaller league, the Super Series, plays during the summer but is more meant as a way to keep national team players sharp than as a true national league.
Cuban MLB players: 173 Cuban-born players have played in Major League Baseball, but since the Castro family came to power the only ones who have made it to MLB have all been defectors- with some arriving as children and others in the prime of their careers.
Notable names: Youlieski Gourriel is probably the best known player on the team, an infielder (primarily 3B) who, especially when he was younger, would have MLB teams fighting for the rights to sign him if they could. He hit .273 in the 2006 WBC and .333 in the 2009 edition, where he also hit two home runs.
Highest achievers: Jose Abreu has been dubbed the “Best Hitter You’ve Never Heard Of”, and while this will be his first WBC, the same cannot be said for other Cuban stars like Frederich Cepeda, Alfredo Despaigne, Alexei Bell and Ismel Jimenez.
Unless the entire team defects en masse, they are almost a certainty to advance to round 2. Only Japan could defeat them, although Brazil could briefly give them trouble if certain things break their way.
About the Country: The largest economy of South America and the host of the 2016 Olympics, Brazil is also notable for being the only country in the hemisphere that speaks Portuguese, as well as it’s great soccer tradition. Fun fact- The flag of Brazil has 27 stars for the 26 states of Brazil as well as it’s federal district (capital).
Baseball history: Brazil’s baseball heritage is, unique amongst the Western Hemisphere, because of Japan, not America. Brazil has a long history of Japanese immigrants, and they brought their love of baseball with them. In addition, Cuban coaches often hold clinics and provide aid to Brazil- Yan Gomes, the first Brazilian MLB player, got into the game because his father was a friend with a Cuban baseball coach.
Brazil’s baseball league: No professional league, instead Brazil’s baseball competitions are run by amateur organizations and academies
Brazilian MLB players: Sadly for Brazil, their lone MLB player, Yan Gomes, was traded during the off-season and has decided to stay in Indians camp to try and win a job in the big leagues.
Notable names: Managing the Brazilians is HOFer Barry Larkin, a frequent ambassador for the game who has been brought in to skipper Brazil in the WBC.
Highest achievers: Although Gomes may not be there, there will be many players who play either in Japan or the Minor Leagues. Andre Rienzo is in the high-minors for the White Sox, and was pitching in the Arizona Fall League before he left to join the national team for the qualifiers last November. Daniel Yuichi Matsumoto has been a platoon first-basemen with the Tokyo Yakult Swallows of the NPB for awhile, and is the most notable of the many Japanese-Brazilians on the team. Another Brazilian to watch is Royals farmhand Paulo Orlando, who I was very impressed by in the qualifiers.
Not good but could be worse. They should beat China and could give Japan or Cuba some trouble, although a victory against either of those two would be a major upset.
Cuba and Japan are almost certainly going to advance out of this, the only question is whether Japan will be the top advance or the second place advance. I’m predicting Japan will triumph, partly due to home field advantage. Brazil and China will likely be going against each other to determine who is three and four, but I give the advantage to the Brazilians.
So, the prediction:
Come back tomorrow for a preview of Pool B of the WBC.