With Japan beating Korea 6-2 last night to earn the top seed out of Pool 1, the second round of the World Baseball Classic is over and the semi-final matchups are set. Korea will face Venezuela tomorrow night and Japan takes on the United States on Sunday night, with the winners of those two games advancing to the finals on Monday night. All three games take place at Dodger Stadium, under the watchful eye of Pasta Pete himself, octogenarian ogler Tommy Lasorda.
Don't get too excited, Team America fans who are happy that Evan Longoria has joined up (he replaces an achy-breaky Chipper Jones). They'll have to face Japanese ace Dice-K, who eats pieces of Adam Dunn for breakfast. We could have had Derrek Lee playing first to replace an injured Kevin Youkilis, but we're stuck with Dunn because Lee values the health of his dumb quad or something. Japan is having their own first basemen injury problems. They lost stud Shuichi Murata last night with an ouchie hamstring; Murata leads the team with two tater tots.
The new double elimination format of the Classic has seen Japan and Korea face off four times already; they've split so far. They also faced off three times in the 2006 WBC with Korea winning the first two of those games but Japan winning the important semifinal matchup that propelled them to the 2006 title. If they both win this weekend, they'll meet for a mind-boggling fifth time this WBC in the championship game. Think their rivalry is contained between the foul lines and neatly-raked warning track-cum-zen garden? Think again:
"Because of history," says Nam Hyung Kim, a baseball writer with SportsChosun of Seoul, "there's bad memories."
That will happen when one country invades, then annexes, another, as Japan did to Korea, leaving only when expelled after World War II. Even now the suspicions and distrust run deep, leaving the nations as reluctant allies. But if the bad blood started with history, it also has become territorial and cultural. And the baseball field has not been immune to those tensions.
"It goes back to our history and tradition," agreed former Dodgers pitcher Jae Seo, who planted a South Korean flag on the mound at Angel Stadium after his country beat Japan in the quarterfinal round of the 2006 WBC, a ritual the Koreans repeated -- much to Japan's anger -- after beating Japan again this week.
At least Ichiro is reluctantly accepting his fate:
Ichiro, the Seattle Mariners' star who once called a loss to South Korea "the most humiliating day of my career" and said his goal was to prove that Korea won't be able to beat Japan "in the next 30 years." He now appears resigned to the fact the two countries, in baseball at least, might as well propose a peace.
"There is a destiny," he said through an interpreter. "It's like a girl you said goodbye to, and then you bump into the same girl again on the street so many times because there's a destiny to meet again.
"Might as well get married if we are going to meet this frequently."
Ichiro, taking baseball metaphors one step too far since 1999.