Japanese television stuck to its live coverage from Miami for almost two hours after Japan defeated the United States 3-2 to win the World Baseball Classic. This was must see viewing — over and over and over. Shohei Ohtani striking out Los Angeles Angels teammate Mike Trout on a pitch away to end the game was replayed repeatedly between player interviews, beer-sprayed clubhouse interludes, and the traditional “doage” — team members tossing the winning manager and players into the air.
The country’s top circulating newspaper Yomiuri rolled out a special Wednesday afternoon edition for commuters, usually reserved for serious matters of state, late-breaking election news, or as it was last year — the assassination of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
“Japan, the World’s No. 1,” the headline read in Japanese, with commuters at Shibuya station pushing and shoving to grab the collector’s item.
The victory and the focus on Ohtani for the past two weeks provided a distraction from economic malaise, missile threats from North Korea, and China’s rise across Asia and its implications for Japan.
It also gave a boost in Japan to baseball, which has been challenged by soccer as the country’s favorite sport. Japan is unlikely in the short-term to win soccer’s World Cup, but its baseball is world class. Its won three of the five WBC titles, dating to the first event in 2006.
Japan joined the Dominican Republic in 2013 as the only unbeaten champions of baseball’s premier national team tournament.
“I was OK with either losing or winning,” said Hiroya Kuroda, a 44-year-old in a crowd of about 400 watching the game in a studio at Tokyo Tower. “But I was very moved by the fact that they showed us a dramatic game on that stage in the United States.”
Toshiya Ishii, a 29-year-old fan, broke down crying at the victory.
“Thank you Ohtani,” he said. “Congratulations Samurai Japan. Thank you.”
Japan beat the Americans at their own game, and it wasn’t the first time.
American teachers and missionaries popularized the game in Japan in the 1870s and 1880s, but it was a game in 1896 in Yokohama between Americans and Japanese that Japan won 29-4 that helped baseball take root in the country.
“The greatest decision I ever made,” said Lars Nootbaar, the St. Louis Cardinals outfielder who was the first to play for Japan by ancestry. He spoke in a television interview after the game, and then hugged his mother, Kumiko, who was standing alongside.
“Nippon daisuki,” Nootbaar said in Japanese. “Arigato.”
“I love Japan. Thank you.”
Nootbaar, Ohtani, pitcher Yu Darvish, and manager Hideki Kuriyama were among those tossed into the air by celebrating teammates.
“That’s the first time I’ve ever been lifted up like that before,” Nootbaar said. “I hope I got a picture of it because that’s something that I want to remember forever.”
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