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Catching On

The World BaseballClassic started slowly in Tokyo, then a Korean squad with something to proveupset the home team

If there werelessons learned in the first World Baseball Classic's first round-robin series,held in Tokyo last weekend, one had to do with the weather--more specificallythe difficulty of enticing fans to turn out for games in the cold and rain ofearly March, even when those games are played indoors. Only 15,869 people, manyof them clad in overcoats and parkas, showed up last Friday night to watch PoolA favorite Japan clobber China 18-2 at the 55,000-seat Tokyo Dome. That was10,676 more than had shown for the opener that afternoon, in which Korea beatChinese Taipei 2-0.

As the weatherimproved, however, so did attendance, which doubled to 31,047 for Japan's 14-3slaughter of Chinese Taipei on Saturday, the second straight game that wasended by the event's seven-inning, 10-run mercy rule. Korea's 10-1 win overChina ensured that Japan and Korea would advance to this weekend's second roundin Anaheim and set the stage for an irrelevant, though highly charged,first-round finale, played before Japan's crown prince and princess, Japanesebaseball legend Shigeo Nagashima and some 35,000 other fans.

Another lesson,learned the hard way by the undisputed star attraction of Pool A, IchiroSuzuki, is not to return home sounding like one of the trash-talking U.S. majorleaguers you've been hanging with for the last five years. Ten days before WBCplay began, he told Nikkan Sports, "I don't want to just win. I want thepeople watching to feel that [our play] is beautiful and extraordinary. I wantto win in a way that will make [the opposition] think that they won't be ableto beat us for another 30 years." Ichiro also said in a pretournament pressconference that he was excited to be playing with Japanese teammates who"stimulated" and "refreshed" him--an apparent swipe at hismajor league team, the Mariners, whose lack of commitment to winning he hascriticized and who, he noted, have not been in the playoffs for four years.

Not surprisingly,the Koreans, who have seven major leaguers on their roster, were angered byIchiro's remarks and played all out to prove him wrong. They succeeded indramatic fashion on Sunday: In the top of the eighth inning, his team trailing2-1 with a runner on first, 29-year-old lefthanded power hitter Seung Yeop Leeknocked a pitch from lefty Hirotoshi Ishii into the right centerfield stands,lifting Korea to a 3-2 win and first place in Pool A.

In second-roundpool play, when Korea must again face Japan as well as, most likely, the U.S.and Mexico, the players have special motivation to succeed. They are all awarethat the members of the South Korean squad that won the gold medal in the 1998Asian Games in Bangkok were given exemptions from their nation's compulsorymilitary service. Said Korea manager Kim In Sik, "Who knows what thegovernment will do if we win?"

Robert Whiting isthe author of You Gotta Have Wa and the Western world's foremost authority onJapanese baseball.

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Rising Prodigal Son?

An intriguing sidelight to the WBC pool play in Tokyo:Tsuneo Watanabe, 80, the dictatorial chairman of Yomiuri Holdings, which ownsthe storied Yomiuri Giants, met with Ichiro Suzuki (right) on Feb. 28 and latersaid that when the 32-year-old rightfielder's playing days are over, "Iwant him to be our manager." Few took the proposal seriously becauseWatanabe is known for such off-the-cuff remarks (and Ichiro declined comment),but the statement surprised Japanese baseball insiders. After Ichiro jumpedfrom the Orix Blue Wave to the U.S. in 2000, Watanabe was his most vocalcritic. Fans had long considered former Yomiuri and current Yankees outfielderHideki Matsui to be the top candidate for the Giants managerial job when heretired, but after Matsui opted out of the WBC, his stock in Japan took a hit,while Ichiro's rose.



HAVING A BLAST The homer by Seung (inset) thrilled Korea's raucous contingent.



[See caption above.]