Yep, the Red menace has been averted, with the help of our friends from the Land of the Rising Sun. Fidel will not be able to gloat--at least not too much, his team did get farther than the wealthy capitalist gringos in the tournament--over a WBC trophy.
In retrospect, the matchup did favor Japan. Cuba's righthanded-heavy lineup played into the strength of Japan's righthanded pitchers, particulaly those with unorthodox deliveries. Japan, with more lefty bats in the lineup, also enjoyed the advantage of Petco Park, which favors southpaws greatly.
The game featured an exciting middle section, where Cuba got into the game and threatened to take the lead, bracketed between the early innings, where Japan got a quick 4-1 lead, and the ninth, when the Japanese team cracked it open.
All told, it was a fine end to a fine tournament. The only sad thing was the scheduling, which had the game ending around 1:00 AM Eastern. With work the next day (and my mother-in-law sleeping on our couch) I couldn't stay up to watch the post-game celebration or awards ceremonies.
So, what did we learn from the first WBC? Let's start with some concrete suggestions:
The Schedule. I'll join the bandwagon of folks who think that this tourney would be better held in November, away from College Basketball, and at a time when most of the major leaguers are closer to playing shape. This will never happen. I think (no inside information, just applying some common sense) that the major reason the WBC is in March is because that is time that the Major Leaguers are supposed to be working, anyway. Remember: there are two forms of currency in labor negotiations, namely money and days off. March, when any player under contract is supposed to be doing calesthenics in Spring Training, doesn't cut into the MLPBA boys' vacations.
More Foreign Umps. This one has to happen, if only for smell test reasons. Major League umps can man the non-USA matches, but umpiring crews for Team USA's games should have, at least, a neutral crew chief, if not an entire neutral country crew. I was relieved when the Japanese team advanced to the semis--even though it was at Team USA's expense--because it would have been horrible for the first WBC to have been marred by that horrible call from the Japan/USA tilt.
Can Everyone Please Take This Seriously? I was pretty shocked when Team USA showed up for only a couple of days' worth of workouts prior to playing in the WBC. You'd have thought that someone would be coordinating to make sure pitchers started their throwing early, guys were at their playing weight earlier than usual, etc. There's no evidence that there was any more formal preparation for this than there is to playing in the All-Star Game. From the Major Leaguer's part, that is. Pretty sure that the Japanese, Cuban, and Korean teams didn't take this so cavalierly.
This is more a U.S.-specific concern than one aimed at the tourney as a whole. If you're going to play this thing, play to win. Folks want to make sure that their players are ready for the major league season, which is all well and good--but playing yo win sometimes means that you sometimes play a player out of position when there's a glut (like the U.S. had with third base--ARod and Chipper Jones made the roster, David Wright and Eric Chavez didn't), and that playing time isn't always distributed equally, to let guys get their work in. Rockies outfielder Matt Holiday and Yankees' retiree Al Leiter didn't belong on Team USA--and Leiter cost them in the first round against Canada.
Until Team USA takes this thing seriously, the WBC isn't going to be everything that it should be.