World Baseball Classic Preview: Group A

WBC will be sponsoring a car in the NASCAR Mexico Toyota Series race on Friday, March 1 in Phoenix

The World Baseball Classic begins on Saturday in Japan and Korea. Let's take a look at Group A, and see who's involved - both from a baseball and cultural (largely, cinematic!) standpoint.

Japan

Baseball. The two-time defending champions might find a little bit harder the third time around, because they'll have to do it without any current Major League players. So they'll miss double tournament MVP Daisuke Matsuzaka, and Ichiro Suzuki, who drove in the winning runs during last time's final, in extra innings against Korea. However, Nippon Professional Baseball is clearly the second strongest league in the world, and if previous WBCs are anything to go by, they'll have an absolute dedication to the cause that will cause them to outperform stronger opponents. They shouldn't have any problems qualifying out of this group.

Culture. I had a Japanese girlfriend once. I don't use the words "psychotically jealous" lightly, but when she started gouging eyes out of video sleeves with a scissors... Yep, time to go. Japanese culture has a weird fascination, in part because large chunks feel almost entirely alien. But it's also home to some of the best film-makers in the world, both live-action (Takashi Miike, who can direct anything from horror to musicals) and animation. I used to watch a lot of anime, but largely gave up when it seemed like all that was coming out was stories about high-school ping-pong clubs fighting giant robots. But Hayao Miyazaki is still the greatest animator of all time, bar none.

Recommended viewing: Godzilla vs. Mothra. Mothra kicks total ass. Best movie monster of all-time.

Cuba

Baseball. Like Japan, they won't have any major leaguers on their roster - because that requires defection, making you persona non grata as far as the national team is concerned. So there'll be no Yunel Escobar, Alexei Ramirez, Yoenis Cespedes or, on the pitching side, Aroldis Chapman. Regardless, they're still ranked #1 in the world by the International Baseball Federation, even though they dropped both games of an exhibition series against the Japanese squad in December. Particularly watch out for Jose Abreu, who batted .394, and hit 35 home-runs in only 87 games during the regular domestic season

Culture. I'm married to one. Well, Mrs. SnakePit is not technically Cuban, having been born in the US (though she still curses in Spanish!), but she almost got stuck there as a babe in arms when Castro took over, and had to be brought out by a relative. It's a whole thing. Ask her about it. Then there's the story of her relative who had his home seized by the government, and who buried his gold in the back garden: it's now a police station. Some day, once things open up, we're going back there with a jackhammer and reclaiming our inheritance. Hilarity - or, at least, a major Hollywood movie starring Ewan McGregor and St. Penelope - ensues.

Recommended viewing: Juan of the Dead. What does a layabout do when zombies invade Havana? Sets up a business to help the more squeamish deal with them, for an appropriate fee, of course...

China

Baseball. With the absence of Bruce Chen, there's only one major-league player on the roster: Ray Chang, a AAA player with the Reds [was born in Kansas City, incidentally]. Despite it being the most populous nation on earth, the sport has some way to come, though one hopes things have improved from this report concerning the 2008 All-Star Game, which drew a crowd of 175, almost all "students from the nearby Wuxi University of Science and Technology, and they had come to the game for one reason only: they had been ordered to." Still, it's a big enough market to make MLB drool. Have been outscored 59-10 in six WBC games to date, but did beat Taipei last time out.

Culture. I've been watching Chinese - and, in particular, Hong Kong - movies since seeing Jackie Chan's Police Story at London's legendary Scala Cinema in 1990. Still do: the last film we watched, in fact, was Vengeance, starring Johnny Hallyday as a Frenchman who goes to the Far East to seek out those who killed his grandchildren. It manages to strike a balance between action and emotion that's very rarely struck in Western cinema. It's available on Netflix streaming if you want to check it out. Director Johnnie To is probably the best action film-maker in the world at this point.

Recommended viewing: Remember The Departed? Won a lot of Oscars a few years ago? It was a remake of Infernal Affairs. Which, for my money, is a lot better, despite the crappy voiceover on the trailer

Brazil

Baseball. Let's face it, baseball is probably around the 15th most popular sport in the country - slots #1-14 all being occupied by "Futebol". Still, the country is on a bit of a roll: they've got the World Cup next year, and then host the Olympics in 2016. But in terms of shocks, beating Panama not once but twice, to qualify for the WBC, is hard to beat. Managed by Barry Larkin, they will also have to do without their major-league representative, catcher Yan Gomes, who opted to focus on competing for a spot as backup catcher with the Indians. Expecting anything from them beyond a quick exit is probably a stretch, but we'll certainly be rooting for their Cinderella story.

Culture. Writing this, I've come to the realization that my perception of most foreign countries is largely colored by my exposure to their movies. This is a bit of a mixed blessing - as above, I believe Japanese schools are havens for ping-pong and giant robots, in the same way I used to believe American schools were built on hellmouths and inhabited by vampire-slaying cheerleaders. [Of course, now I realize they're not that nice]. For Brazil, I know the Coffin Joe series, with titles like This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse, and I've seen City of God. Neither exactly acts as a great tourist advert for the country. I hope Muu comes along to tell us more, as our resident Brazilian.

Recommended viewing: Oh, look: it's crappy voiceover guy again, Still, Tropa de Elite (Elite Squad) is one of the best action films of the past decade. The sequel is on Netflix; this isn't, but is worth tracking down.

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