The news out of the United States on Monday was that Major League Baseball has put the 2021 World Baseball Classic on hold due to the uncertainty regarding the coronavirus pandemic. Baseball America reported that MLB will look to schedule it in 2023.
No nation with the exception of perhaps Cuba places as much emphasis on the tournament as two-time champion Japan, but Nippon Professional Baseball was already interested in resolving the problem of a WBC next March, now that the Olympics have ostensibly been pushed into a 2021 time slot.
And though the WBC is a big deal in Japan, it is nothing compared to the Olympics, where Japan has repeatedly crashed and burned since pros were allowed to play in 2000. Being able to host the 2020 Olympics meant Japan could have another shot at a gold medal.
Japanese companies may line up to get a piece of the WBC sponsorship pie, but with a chance to play for an Olympic gold medal at home, NPB had to lay down a tarp to keep sponsors’ drool from staining the carpet.
Before the reality of the coronavirus was understood, NPB’s season was supposed to start on March 20, a week earlier than usual, take a three-week break for the Olympics, and finish two weeks late. When the International Olympic Committee informed Japan that there would be no Olympics this year, so that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe could announce that he alone made the decision for the good of the world, NPB instantly began squawking about how the 2021 WBC would be a hindrance to its Olympic preparations.
So while Japan loves its WBC, losing it in 2021 is no big deal, especially if it is only postponed until 2023 as seems possible.
A postponement, as the title suggests, would be the tournament’s second, Japan having won the inaugural 2006 event and the second edition in 2009 after the first tournament was delayed a year due to organizing hassles, many related to Japan.
Jim Small, then the President of MLB Japan was the point man in negotiating Japan’s participation, but NPB needed nudging, and frankly lacked the competence to act in a timely fashion.
There are some who believe a word from Sadaharu Oh, then the manager of the Daiei Hawks, pushed Japanese baseball into taking a chance on the idea.
Although Oh said it wasn’t his doing, he admitted to being a proponent of the tournament while many suits in NPB were against it.
“There are a lot of conservative people in the game, and they were against change,” Oh said in November 2017. “But to grow the game, you need to take some chances. Those people eventually saw the light.”
In addition to those conservative elements, there was also the problem that NPB lacked competency. Because English is a necessity for international business, it’s common for people of minimal competence to be promoted to positions of responsibility simply because of their English proficiency. There are a lot of people in Japanese baseball who are both extremely competent in their jobs and good at English, but that is not always the case.
In the case of the WBC, much of the heavy lifting was done by a skilled speaker of English who is something of a wild card. Although possessed with an excellent memory and knowledge of the game, he is prone to say things that are not true, and is really no administrator.
This became really clear in 2005. Although Japan agreed to take part in the first WBC, NPB’s union had not been notified of it. When asked about the delay, secretary general at the time, Kazuo Hasegawa, claimed his organization had only signed a document “expressing interest.” It would be no exaggeration to say that every regular baseball writer in Japan knew where that story originated from.
Less than a year after the union’s first strike had forced NPB into abandoning its contraction plans in the summer of 2004, the union was surprised to learn that the owners had agreed to take part in the WBC without consulting the players.
Although the tournament was managed jointly by MLB and its union, Small said that the organizers made a conscious decision not to reach out to Japan’s union despite NPB’s incompetence and lack of leadership that brought on the 2004 labor crisis.
“We didn’t want to overstep,” Small said during the contentious summer of 2005. “We didn’t want to step on NPB’s toes. But in retrospect, we probably should have brought them into the discussion earlier.”
There is no mistaking that when the Japanese baseball world considers MLB, it generally sees things worth emulating. Owners see the profits, fans see the physical strength and splendid new ballparks, players see the elite working conditions and competition. Yet, that envy, is often tinted by the kind of racial narcissism that sees Japan’s extra practice and the dedication to small ball as a kind of purity that can rarely be fathomed by outsiders.
Having said that, there are areas where Japan is way ahead of the United States, and professional baseball’s response to the coronavirus illuminates that gap.
Taking a cue from Donald Trump, MLB has been leaking a steady stream of mixed messages, while exploiting the downside of the coronavirus to incite division in the labor force — moving toward a demand that the players take pay cuts and get back to work despite the risks.
No players in NPB have had their salaries docked, all are expected to take part in practice while social distancing.
While the Japanese government was going full steam toward opening the Tokyo Olympics on July 24 until the IOC pulled the plug, NPB, too, was setting new Opening Days for when it would ostensibly be safe to play before crowds. Unlike the United States, no TV network in Japan was proclaiming concern for the virus a hoax, nor did the prime minister ever downplay it as a threat.
Since the Olympics were put in stasis, Japan declared a state of emergency, and NPB began reciting the advice of medical experts, saying it was too early to say when the season would start. Rather than a sense that the health crisis will be accompanied by Ameican-style class warfare, Japanese baseball has remained, well Japanese.
While Japan’s response to the coronavirus has been mediocre, it has been far better than the United States’ effort. And while people in both countries may be looking toward baseball for a sense of optimism, at least baseball in Japan is moving forward toward doing that exactly that — without the extra baggage that MLB is bringing to the table.