Korea, Japan coexist at Classic camp
Team rivals focused on March 5 showdown at Tokyo Dome
By Stephen Ellsesser / Special to MLB.com
The massive dome in southern Japan is host to both Japan's and Korea's respective training camps, leading up to Friday's first exhibition game between Japan and the Nippon Professional Baseball All-Stars. Japan and the NPB team will play again Saturday and will play the Japan Series champion Chiba Lotte Marines on Sunday night, ending World Baseball Classic action in Fukuoka.
Before getting a shot at Chiba Lotte later in the week at Tokyo Dome, the Koreans have exhibitions scheduled for Saturday and Sunday against the Lotte Giants of the Korean Baseball Organization. The favorites of Group A, Japan and Korea have always had a rivalry, and not just in baseball. Nonetheless, the teams peacefully coexist with the Koreans practicing in the morning and the Japanese in the late afternoon.
"The important thing is the game," Korean closer Seung-Hwan Oh said. "I don't even see the Japanese guys, so it does not affect us."
Meanwhile, Japan is focusing on its own fortunes as well, developing team chemistry as it incorporates its Major Leaguers with its NPB players.
Japan power hitter Nobuhiko Matsunaka, who will start at first base or designated hitter, has very specific worries, not about blending MLB and NPB, but about those still playing on domestic soil who may see the World Baseball Classic as a chance to join Ichiro Suzuki and Akinori Otsuka in the Majors.
"If there are players who play wondering how they will fare in the Majors, we will lose," Matsunaka said in a TV interview.
Sadaharu Oh and his coaching staff ran a very typical first day of practice, a four-hour session working on baseball fundamentals. He and his staff discussed strategy and player personnel, but they didn't talk about Korea.
"We think we can win by playing Japanese-style baseball," Oh said. "There will be teams who want to beat us, though."
Although both teams are focused within during warmups, rest assured they don't go long without thinking of their March 5 showdown at Tokyo Dome, the last Group A game to be played and one certain to have implications on who advances to California for the next round.
"I can't predict scores, but I think Korea can go to the U.S. for the semifinals," Korea's Byung-Kyu Lee said. "We can beat Japan."
But for now, all the talk is just talk, echoing through an empty Yahoo! Dome. A monstrosity along Kyushu's coastline, the dome's capacity of 35,157 isn't among Japan's largest, but come game time, the retractable-roof dome will be as large and loud as it looks from the outside.
And when play moves to the Big Egg, the party will get even bigger.
Stephen Ellsesser is a reporter for The Japan Times and a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.