Japanese team has beef with umpiring

Originally Published: March 12, 2006
By Jim Allen | Special to ESPN.com

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Japan manager Sadaharu Oh would not be pacified after a bizarre turn of events cost his team the lead in a WBC quarterfinal-round game won 4-3 by the United States on Sunday.

"Of course, I'm furious," Oh said, referring to home plate umpire Bob Davidson's belated eighth-inning decision to make a controversial call (one which he asserted was his to make all along).

Sadaharu Oh
AP Photo/Chris CarlsonOh wondered why the rules don't permit the umpire closest to the play to have a say.
With the score 3-3 in the top of the eighth, Japan was knocking on the door against reliever Joe Nathan, who couldn't have picked the strike zone out of a police lineup. With the bases loaded and one down, speedster Tsuyoshi Nishioka scored easily from third base on a fly to left center.

The Americans appealed, and when second base umpire Brian Knight ruled Nishioka had not left early, U.S. manager Buck Martinez swung into action, telling Davidson it was the home plate umpire's call, not Knight's.

"The wrong umpire made the initial call," Davidson said in a statement afterward. "It was the call of the plate umpire, which is me. It was my call and I have him leaving early."

That still doesn't explain why Davidson held his peace until prodded by Martinez.

"I don't honestly know if I've ever had a call reversed," Martinez said afterward. "That was a good feeling, having that one go in our favor."

Oh was equally surprised by the decision, but had nothing politically correct to say.

"The crew chief changed the ruling of the closest umpire to the play," Oh said. "I've been involved in baseball for many, many years and I've never ever seen that happen in Japan.

"All the umpires should be equal. The opinion of all four should carry the same weight. It is unimaginable that this could happen in the United States, where baseball is so popular and so well-loved."

The play was close, and Knight's call was reasonable, but Davidson's sudden change of heart proved Japan's undoing.

"That doesn't belong at this level," Oh said.

One former manager famous for his temper was even more blunt. Senichi Hoshino, now a senior director of the Hanshin Tigers, said: "Any umpire who makes a mistake like that should just quit. It is bush league."

It was the second straight defeat for Oh's powerhouse. Stung by a loss seven days earlier to Korea, the Japanese came out on fire in Anaheim and fought the high-powered Americans to a standstill through eight innings. Despite blowing a 3-0 lead, they were still in the game until the end, with Kyuji Fujikawa striking out Ken Griffey Jr. on a 3-2 pitch with one out and the bases loaded in the ninth.

Although Alex Rodriguez then settled the issue with a sayonara-single up the middle, there was no doubting Japan's determination. And after this defeat, Oh's warriors will be taking no prisoners when they face Mexico on Tuesday.

Ichiro follows the flag

It didn't take long for emotion to get the best of Ichiro Suzuki and inspire him to strike a blow for his country -- hitting a solo homer moments after hearing his national anthem played at a big league ballpark for the first time.

"I have heard it in Japan, of course, so many times in my home country. But on this occasion on this stage, it resonated within me, and I think by our play you could say the players felt it, too," Suzuki said. "We carried that feeling into the game with us, and our spirits were flying."

Japan allows too much Lee-way

Japan starter Koji Uehara allowed only one run in five innings, but he lost his decision when Derrek Lee homered off Japan's second pitcher, Naoyuki Shimizu, who lost his command after being warned about going to his mouth by Davidson in the sixth inning.

Lee was an inspired choice for manager Martinez because of his Japanese upbringing. His father, Leon, and uncle, Leron, were longtime stars in Nippon Professional Baseball. Although starting pitcher Jake Peavy and right fielder Vernon Wells had enjoyed success against Japan in the most recent MLB tour in 2004, Martinez said that carried no weight in his lineup decision for Sunday's game.

"The only exception is Derrek Lee," Martinez said. "This game has extra-special meaning for him. He grew up there. His dad and his uncle were big stars there."

A week after Seung-yeop Lee's homer lifted Korea over Japan in the Pool A finale, Martinez said: "The Japanese fans have seen Lees doing damage, and they weren't always Koreans."

Besides the coincidence of sharing a family name with millions of Koreans, Derrek and his family have another Korean connection, Hee Seop Choi. The Los Angeles Dodgers and Team Korea slugger was brought to the United States by Derrek's dad, when the elder Lee was the Cubs' chief of Pacific Rim scouting.

Leon developed a strong bond with Choi, whom the Cubs traded to the Florida Marlins in exchange for Derrek.

"My Dad said his son got traded for his grandson," Derrek said.

Choi was flat in the Tokyo Dome, where Korea ran the Pool A table, but manager In Sik Kim believes his star will be ready for Round 2.

"Choi is getting better and better. I have big expectations for him right now," Kim said.

Better luck tomorrow

At the same time that irate Japanese fans flooded the Tokyo headquarters of Nippon Professional Baseball with angry telephone calls over Sunday's umpiring fiasco, Korea manager In Sik Kim put in his two cents.

"In some ways, the WBC has not gone smoothly, but it is the first of its kind and the most important thing is promoting baseball internationally," said the skipper after his team's 2-1 victory over Mexico. "I am doing my best to understand this, and I know the process necessarily requires a lot of trial and error.

"I am not in a position to comment on the umpiring, but anytime a call goes against your team, you always complain. But it's really just tough luck."

Jim Allen covers baseball for The Daily Yomiuri in Japan.