Fans Show Up at Stadiums, Turn on TVs to See Star Baseball Players

Shuhei Yokoyama / The Yomiuri Shimbun
Spectators cheer in the stands in Miami during the World Baseball Classic final on Tuesday.

MIAMI — Even after Japan beat the United States in the final of the World Baseball Classic (WBC) on Tuesday night in Miami, the festivities lingered outside loanDepot park. Joining the fans rooting for Samurai Japan and the U.S. team were supporters of teams that had earlier been eliminated from the two-week tournament.

A 50-year-old customs official from the Dominican Republic said he was moved by Japan’s come-from-behind sayonara victory against Mexico in the semifinal.

“The final as well was a good game, with nothing to complain about,” he said. “Japan showed us some splendid baseball.”

The WBC gathers some of the major leagues’ best players. This year’s 5th WBC featured a number of star players, including several who had won MVP awards or been home run champs.

“The more the WBC is held, the closer it comes to becoming a marquee event,” said Los Angeles Angels two-way superstar Shohei Ohtani, 28. “The rewarding sense of satisfaction of using our abilities to make the tournament better and better, any team can feel that.”

Buzzworthy team

Samurai Japan attracted a great deal of attention even before the WBC began. The team included Ohtani; San Diego Padres ace Yu Darvish, 36; Japanese American outfielder Lars Nootbaar, 25, of the St. Louis Cardinals; and Triple Crown-winner Munetaka Murakami, 23, of Tokyo Yakult Swallows. It was called the best roster in WBC history.

Social media posts added to the buzz surrounding Samurai Japan.

From the time training camp started on Feb. 17 in Miyazaki, Samurai Japan members posted items on social media such as photos of themselves at dinner parties.

The team’s management company NPB Enterprise, Inc. said the number of followers on the official Instagram page tripled from the day before the camp to over 930,000 on Feb. 21.

Japan was in Pool B for the first round at Tokyo Dome. Attendance for all Pool B games hit 361,976, the largest in the tournament’s history for a round. For the tournament as a whole, attendance exceeded 1.3 million, a record for the WBC.

Domestic TV ratings for every Japan game exceeded 40%. There were also long lines at the official merchandise shops.

Jim Small, who is the WBC president and MLB’s senior vice president, international, helped develop the tournament. He said the enthusiasm of the Japanese fans was like nothing he had ever seen before, and the interest in the WBC has never been higher.

‘World Cup of baseball’

Besides Samurai Japan, there was baseball fever for other teams playing in Tokyo. About 35,000 people attended the quarterfinal between Cuba and Australia at Tokyo Dome.

WBC officials believe that the culture of enjoying sports by cheering for not only Japan, but also other teams may have been carried over from Japan’s hosting of the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

During Japan’s first-round game against the Czech Republic, Chiba Lotte Marines pitcher Roki Sasaki, 21, threw a fastball that hit a Czech player. After the game, Sasaki gave the player bags filled with snacks as an apology.

Czech manager Pavel Chadim, whose team was filled with amateur players including firefighters, expressed his gratitude at a press conference after the team’s final game at Tokyo Dome. He also wore a hachimaki headband that had the Hinomaru national flag and the phrase “hissho” (certain victory) printed on it.

When Ohtani arrived in Miami for the semifinal against Mexico wearing a cap of the Czech team, the Czech baseball association immediately reacted with pleasure on social media. Such friendly exchanges on the stage of the world’s premier baseball competition became a topic of conversation even in countries where baseball is not so popular.

The number of participating teams expanded to 20 this year, with the Czech Republic, Nicaragua and the United Kingdom competing for the first time.

MLB’s Small expects that there will be many more baseball players in the world by the time of the 15th WBC, with hopes on Africa and South Asia.

“The WBC is baseball’s World Cup,” he said.

The Yomiuri Shimbun