Roughly the same thing has occurred with baseball. We invented the game, we refined the game, and then we moved into a phase that didn't have anything to do with fundamental baseball. We used to pitch, catch, run, bunt, and concentrate on moving runners. We used to value speed. We used to focus on sound execution in all phases of the game. Now we're trying to hit a lot of really long home runs.
And now, we come to the first World Baseball Classic and what do we find? National teams from Latin America and particularly Asia playing baseball exactly the way it used to be played in America. Imitation is, of course, the sincerest form of flattery. But you forget about the flattery when these national teams are beating us over the head with this previously American style of play.
The two teams in the finals, Japan and Cuba, played this way. The most successful team in the tournament by record, Korea (6-1), played this way. It is true that Team USA split against Korea and Japan, but the victory over Japan was stained by a critical and incorrect call by an American umpire that went against Japan.
Against these giants of the small-ball international game, the U.S. sent a home-run-or-nada attack. The long ball approach could have worked, except for the fact that the level of international pitching was much better than expected. Against lesser pitching, the U.S. -- given its power-packed lineup -- could have happily slugged its way to victory. Against the superior pitching it actually encountered, the U.S. would have to depend on manufacturing runs. Oops.
Power is fine. Power is fun. But you'd better have more than power if you hope to succeed in this competition.
Look, the Koreans -- before finally losing to Japan in the semifinals -- gave up eight earned runs in six games. They also committed no errors in seven games. You literally can't beat that kind of game, unless your pitchers are throwing shutouts.
Two Cuban pitchers held the powerful Dominican Republic lineup to no earned runs in the semifinals. After this game, Dominican manager Manny Acta suggested that the Cubans had Major League-quality pitchers performing for them every day in this tournament.
As it turns out, rather than fielding this All-Star -- but one-dimensional -- lineup, the U.S. would have been better off with a team that had more than one way to score. It would have been better off if it had sent a better defensive team. And it would have been even better off if it had more of its top-shelf pitchers on its roster.
All of these sorts of players, players better suited to this competition, exist in American baseball. They just weren't on this team in large enough numbers to make a difference. Entire teams that play small-ball, old-school baseball are succeeding in the Major Leagues. Why didn't we simply send them to this tournament? Because they were not made up primarily of American players.
When this tournament occurs again in 2009, will we have to go through this again? After all, these other national teams are only going to improve. Is this just another embarrassment waiting to happen for U.S. baseball?
Not necessarily. American baseball may be moving back to its better self. The success of the 2005 Chicago White Sox, after a shift in emphasis to pitching and defense, should offer a push in that direction. Frankly, the fact that a suitably rigorous anti-steroids program is in place will also serve to take the game away from the obsession with the homer, the tater, the dinger, and, of course the round-tripper.
The other thing that needs to happen, whether we're talking about sluggers, closers or pinch-runners, is that Team USA is going to need the full support of the 30 Major League clubs. The general managers and team officials who pressured American players not to participate in this Classic will have to be on board for the next one or Classic history will repeat itself.
Whatever happened here, the United States of America still has the deepest pool of baseball talent in the world. What it did not have was the best baseball team in this tournament. America was beaten at its own game, or, at the very least, what used to be its own game.
As baseball fans, Americans can certainly be encouraged by the growth of the worldwide game, the quality of the worldwide game, and the success of this tournament. But for the national pastime in international competition, the desire remains to be both encouraged and victorious. If the appropriate lessons are learned, the U.S should perform at a more suitable level for baseball's birthplace in World Baseball Classic II.