By JAYSON STARK*, ESPN.com
SAN DIEGO (19 March 2006) – THEY won’t be just two baseball teams colliding on the same field.
That, we’ve seen before. That, in fact, you can see every night at a stadium near you.
The Japan-Cuba championship game is a contrast in styles.
But when Japan meets Cuba on a historic Monday evening in San Diego, what will unfold is something bigger, something grander, something much more fascinating.
This is the championship game of the World Baseball Classic. But it’s more. It’s about two very different cultures colliding. It’s about two very different histories colliding.
It’s about why we would even think about holding something like a World Baseball Classic in the first place.
Think about these two countries. Could they possibly be any more dissimilar?
Think about Japan, a vast nation of 127 million people, immersed in the technological revolution, a nation whose economic muscle makes it a major force in world events.
Now think about Cuba, a tiny island populated by fewer than 11 million people, a nation stuck in a 1950s time warp in more ways than we can comprehend.
They have very little in common besides that ball they both throw around. In fact, it’s possible there is no element of everyday life that bonds these countries more than their love of baseball.
Now that mutual love affair has brought them together, to this moment, to the final of this earth-rattling baseball event.
They are playing the same game. But they play it in their own way. And that clash of baseball cultures could be just as much fun to watch as the championship game itself.
Think closers have it rough? Cuba’s Pedro Lazo pitched 4 2/3 innings in relief Saturday and got the victory.
The Cubans play baseball with emotion oozing out of their caps. Fists pumping. Hands clapping. Flags waving. Mouths moving. If something in a ball game is worth doing, it is worth celebrating. That’s their own special M.O.
They hold animated huddles, on the field, after every inning. Their bench players and bullpen spend every second of every game on their feet, standing on the top step of the dugout or gathering in front of the mounds in the bullpen. But the scene we’ll never forget from their stirring victory Saturday over the Dominican Republic is this:
When pitcher Pedro Lazo was waved in from the bullpen Saturday to relieve starter Yadel Marti, Marti waited on the mound until Lazo arrived. Then the two wrapped each other in a massive hug, in front of 41,000 people.
You won’t see that any time soon at a game in Tokyo (or the Bronx either, for that matter).
Watch these Cubans for a game or two, and it’s hard not to think they play baseball with a flair that separates them from every other country in the world. And there are three reasons for that, says Peter Bjarkman, an author and Cuban baseball historian.
One is Cuba’s African roots. That “Afro-Cuban culture is a little bit different than the rest of Latin America,” Bjorkman says. “It comes out in the music. It comes out in the street life. It comes out, I think, in the way they play baseball.”
Second is Cuba’s never-ending ability to manufacture baseball players on its impoverished streets. Cuba, Bjorkman says, “doesn’t have to take a back seat to anybody in terms of the number of kids who seem to be born to play this game.”
“And the third thing,” Bjorkman says, “is a kind of innocence and naiveté. These kids, when you’re around them, you find they are so isolated in many respects from the rest of the world. I mean, they’re 90 miles away from South Florida, but they don’t have the exposure to international media you have almost everywhere else in world. …
“The world they live in is very focused on the island of Cuba, on Cuban culture, on the Cuban revolution. And I think these kids are kind of like kids off the streets in the United States in the 1940s. Just like the cars in Cuba go back to the ’40s and ’50s, really the life of the people, in many ways, does too.”
There could be no simpler example of that than this: Every player in the WBC was given his own iPod. Only the Cubans had no idea what to make of it, no means to access the songs and videos they could use to fill it with life, not even any way to plug it in or charge it.
But they plug into the music of baseball. They make that clear every moment they spend on the field.
The Japanese, on the other hand, often play the game like the men of science they are. Is there any fundamental they haven’t practiced at least 4.9 billion times in their lives? Is there any skill they haven’t studied and perfected with machine-like precision?
“In Japanese baseball, they’re more regimented,” says Yuta Ishida, a nationally prominent writer for Japan’s Sport Graphic Number magazine. “Even Little League players are taught these things. Do you know how, on a pickoff play at second, the center fielder has to cover second sometimes? Well, they do that – in Little League. Since they are 8 or 9 years old, those players are taught to do that.”
So sometimes, says Japanese sportswriter Keizo Konishi – who covers the major leagues here for Kyodo News – these players become so regimented, so preprogrammed, they aren’t as inventive as other players.
“I think the Cuban players probably are more creative than Japanese players,” Konishi says.
But because we have something like the WBC to bring them together, and to give us extended looks at the way both teams play, we can see that their styles are fusing now more than ever before.
The Japanese have played these games with more visible zeal than many international observers have ever witnessed
The Japanese have played these games with more visible zeal than many international observers have ever witnessed. Even the great Ichiro Suzuki has been infused with newfound emotion by “the Japanese flag on my shoulders,” he said Sunday. And when asked what aspect of American baseball he would like to export back to Japan, he specifically mentioned passion.
“I don’t see anybody who is cool about it,” he said. “And I had to work so hard to catch up with those guys who are really passionate about the game of baseball.”
The Cubans, meanwhile, now have played against the Japanese, the Koreans and other teams from Asia so much in international play that they have begun to incorporate the best of what they’ve seen into their own game.
“Cuban baseball right now is a mixture of American style and Asian style,” says Tamiko Tetsuya, a Japanese freelance journalist who has been to Cuba 29 times. “Because of the Olympic games, they have a lot of experience playing against Asian teams. In the past, they played a very powerful American-style game. But in recent years, they have adapted a more Japanese-style game. You see them bunting early now, in the first, second and third innings. Ten or 20 years ago, you would never see that.”
So these countries are showing us, through the prism of baseball, exactly how much the world is shrinking. Just as we all borrow from each other now – in food, in music and in life – we borrow from each other in baseball, too.
There’s now a greater contrast between both of these teams and major-league-style baseball than there is between the two teams
“Those differences in style are differences only on the surface,” Bjarkman says. “I think, if you go a layer below, that they’re very, very similar. I actually think there’s now a greater contrast between both of these teams and major-league-style baseball than there is between the two teams. Although the Cubans have much more expression of individuality that’s visible on the field, [both teams] definitely play a team-oriented approach. They play the same kind of small ball. They manufacture runs. You’ve seen it in this tournament, in all the games they’ve won.”
So now they meet, on the same field, battling for the same trophy. These are two nations who have long fascinated us, especially when one of their players appeared in one of our uniforms.
We know so little about them, about the worlds they live in or the leagues they play in, that they provide us a never-ending source of intrigue. We often wonder how their games compare to our games, how their leagues compare to our league, how their lives compare to our lives.
So no matter who wins Monday night, the World Baseball Classic will have taught us an invaluable lesson:
They can play this game as well as we can play it. Their leagues might actually be just as good as our leagues. And we can learn as much from the way the Japanese and Cubans play baseball as they can learn from us.
It was worth holding the WBC just for that lesson alone. Wasn’t it?
* Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.