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National Pastime Getting World Serious

By Thomas Boswell
Tuesday, November 21, 2006

On my desk, as a reminder of baseball's biggest trend, sits the hat of the team that could claim it was world champ this year. The cap does not say "St. Louis." It reads "Japan," the country that beat Cuba to win the World Baseball Classic in March. The United States? With Roger Clemens and Alex Rodriguez, we didn't even reach the final round.

Do you still think that the Cardinals, merely one major league team out of 30, are better than the entire Japanese national team? Would you take the Tigers in a seven-game series against Cuba? Perhaps. But you probably wouldn't be dead certain of it.

Right now, the executives of big league teams are in the midst of the same unsettling transition in their basic point of view. After a century of thinking "America first," their team-building focus has become far more international. The stunning WBC results may have been a catalyst. The way to win now is to scout, draft and sign players from anywhere on earth. And if you can't develop such stars yourself, then you better buy them on the open market, no matter how insane the price.

That's why the Red Sox bid $51 million last week for the rights to negotiate with Japan's Daisuke "Monster" Matsuzaka. To sign him, Boston may pay nearly $50 million more. That's why the Cubs gave an eight-year, $136 million contract to Alfonso Soriano, just the latest in a constant stream of stars from the Dominican Republic. And that's part of the reason the Nationals hired Manny Acta, who managed the Dominicans to the semifinals of the WBC, as their new skipper -- to act as a symbol of their development strategy. "We want to sign the best players from all over the world," General Manager Jim Bowden said.

It's all part of the same big picture. Every year, the baseball world gets smaller. And as a result, the game gets better. Football only wishes it could be a world sport. Baseball, like basketball, already is.

In "Monster" Matsuzaka, the Red Sox hope to sign the 26-year-old right-hander who was the MVP of the WBC with a 3-0 record and 1.38 ERA. Given New England's paranoia, what else could Boston do? Just days earlier, the ace of the Evil Empire, Chien-Ming Wang, finished runner-up in the Cy Young voting to Venezuela's Johan Santana. Where did the Yanks get Wang? From Taiwan. These days if you aren't orient-oriented, you're falling behind.

Yesterday, the Cubs grabbed Soriano at a price perhaps $50 million beyond the Nats' reach. In Washington, that evoked a resigned sigh. The Nats would have been crazy to spend $17 million a year for a leadoff man who is still learning to play the outfield. For the first few years of such a deal, Washington wouldn't have had a team worthy of Soriano and, by the end of the contract, when Soriano will be 39, he might not have been worthy of the Nats.

However, from a broader perspective, Soriano's enormous contract simply speaks to the vast amounts of talent in other countries. In the WBC, Soriano wasn't even good enough to stay in the Dominican Republic's lineup! Acta benched him in favor of Placido Polanco who, last month, was MVP of the American League Championship Series and led Detroit to the World Series.

The biggest surprise of this offseason is the willingness of teams to look more extensively toward Asia, long thought to be a level below Latin America for emerging talent. After the final four success of Japan and South Korea in the WBC, that's changing fast. Last week, the Devil Rays paid $4.5 million for the negotiation rights to Japanese infielder Akinori Iwamura.

"People certainly believe that the gap between the majors and Japan is getting smaller," Nationals President Stan Kasten said. "Until five years ago, we didn't know if a great Japanese hitter could translate his game to the majors. Then we got Ichiro. He is my absolute number one favorite player. He has dedication, joy, flair. If everyone had an Ichiro, we'd have to build bigger ballparks. I told A-Rod, 'You know how much I think of you, but you're number two.'

"But we haven't had a great Japanese starting pitcher yet," Kasten added. "After Hideki Irabu [failed], Hideo Nomo was good. If the Red Sox can sign Matsuzaka, we'll see if he is the one."

Matsuzaka isn't hype. Enough evidence is in. American baseball is lucky he still wants to come here to "prove himself." Someday, we may not be the world's magnet. For now, we're still the place a Matsuzaka wants to bring his hesitation-delivery double-breaking "gyro ball." Urban legend? Or can a hanging curve suddenly turn into a slider?

A year ago this month, Matsuzaka pitched a five-hit complete game over a big league all-star team. He's led Seibu to the Japanese title. At 26, he throws 96 mph with command and has three other quality pitches. If the diabolical pitching regimens in Japan, with 200-plus-pitch practice sessions, and 18 complete games last season have not ruined him, then the Red Sox may look smart.

How good a pitcher will Boston get if it can consummate a contract with Matsuzaka before the Dec. 15 deadline? In the Japanese League, he was 17-5 with a 2.13 ERA. Let's guess 16-9 with a 3.30 ERA. For that kind of addition to their rotation, the Red Sox' Josh Beckett and Curt Shilling will gladly say, "Konichiwa."

The current Matsuzaka mania simply mirrors an offseason free agent market that has gone mad. The Orioles just paid $12 million for three years to 35-year-old Jamie Walker. You know, Jamie Walker, the Tigers' fifth-best reliever, the situational left-hander. One year from now, the Nationals claim, they will be part of this offseason stakes race, too. For now, they're signing scouts, not stars. With Soriano gone, their '07 payroll may not reach $40 million. If you're suspicious that the Nats might like to lose 100 games next year to snag a high draft position, you might be right. However, the stench at RFK may not last long.

"The revenues from the new park will arrive next winter and I have to use them, in some form," Kasten said. "It could be for free agents. Doesn't have to be. Could be trades."

In the past, after sport-wide salary binges like the Soriano and Matsuzaka extravaganzas, there have been serious hangovers. "Two years after people overspend, you can often make trades for good players where the other team takes back half of the guy's contract," Kasten said. "If that happens again, there will be a secondary market where we'll look for value opportunities.

"It's a good time to be in our position," Kasten said of the Nationals' role this winter as outside observers, not participants. "It's not a good year to desperately need that last piece of the [championship] puzzle."

For now, the Nats are simply watching the madness of $51 million negotiation-rights bids, $12 million deals for spot relievers and an eight-year contract for a player without a true defensive position. In just one year, however, that posture will completely change. Or, at least, it better.

When a city builds a $611 million park for a team, that club must get off the sidelines and into the game before the gates on the Southeast waterfront open -- no matter where on earth they have to roam, checkbook in hand, to find those players.

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