07:40 3 March 2017
FEATURE: Baseball: McClaren at helm again as China takes on 4th WBC challenge
By Jim Allen
TOKYO, March 3, Kyodo
Historically, China viewed itself as the center of the world, the middle kingdom. But on the diamond, the nation is on the margin of the World Baseball Classic with just two wins over three tournaments.
Former Seattle Mariners skipper John McClaren returns as manager with the country's strongest team ever to face Samurai Japan, Cuba and Australia in an intriguing Pool B at Tokyo Dome starting Tuesday. He spoke to Kyodo News recently by telephone from China's training camp in Florida.
Ray Chang, a hero from China's first WBC win over Taiwan in 2009 is back along with longtime big league pitcher Bruce Chen, and Ju Kwon, a pitcher for the KT Wiz of the Korea Baseball Organization.
"We missed out on (St. Louis Cardinals second baseman) Kolten Wong and his brother. We were having difficulty getting documentation on their grandmother," said McClaren, a baseball lifer who has coached for seven different big league clubs and has worked all over the world to develop the game.
"We just missed out on Vance Worley, he signed with Washington, a new organization. Hong Kong-born Austin Brice didn't think he had enough time to amp up this early. It's really good to mix some of our Chinese American players with our Chinese players. It gives incentive to the players from the mainland."
This year's China team features a graduate of Major League Baseball's Chinese development centers, Baltimore Orioles minor league first baseman Xu Guiyuan, also known as "Itchy" after his favorite player: Ichiro Suzuki.
"We've lost Li Lei. He was our best hitter and he's retired now," McClaren said. "Bu Tao, who beat Brazil (in 2013), he just had Tommy John (surgery). We lost our closer, he retired."
"We've still got Wang Wei. He hit the first home run in the WBC. He's got his name in history forever. He's our captain. He's been with the team since the first WBC. He's played in the Olympics."
But China's future probably starts with youngsters coming out of the three development centers in Wuxi, Nanjing and Changzhou. One of McClaren's pitchers comes out of the development centers as does Xu.
"Itchy's got a really nice future. He's got a really nice swing and the ball comes off his bat. We have good players coming out of China, and they're signing them. There're a lot of positive things happening."
"All I'm trying to do is set a foundation. When it comes time for me to pass the torch, just keep building."
One of the difficulties building in China is the old school use of pitchers in the country's pro league. McClaren said in December that it's common for a pitcher to throw three innings a day for three straight days, because the coaches don't believe arms need to recover.
But still he remains positive about China's game because after all it's baseball. And McClaren just can't get enough.
Although this is McLaren's second WBC as China manager, he was also there at the start in 2006 with the American team that reached the quarterfinals in Anaheim, California, where South Korea advanced as pool winner with a 3-0 record.
"We lost 2-1 to Mexico, and had we beaten Mexico, Japan would have gone home. Instead, they ended up winning the whole thing."
The Americans' 4-3 win against Japan in Anaheim included the infamous call by American umpire Bob Davidson, who mistakenly ruled that Tsuyoshi Nishioka left third base early on a sacrifice fly by Akinori Iwamura and called him out on appeal. The U.S. team went on to win on an unearned sayonara run in the bottom of the ninth off Kyuji Fujikawa.
"Ichiro asked me the next day, 'Did you have anything to do with that?'" McClaren said.
"I said yes. So I told Buck Martinez I kind of thought he left early, and I told Buck to appeal it and he (Ichiro) started laughing."
Despite Davidson calling a Mexican homer off the right-field foul pole a ground rule double against the United States in that quarterfinal pool's final game, the Americans lost.
South Korea advanced with three wins, and Japan won a frustratingly complicated tie-breaking formula after finishing 1-2 along with the United States and Mexico -- something that won't happen this year due to a playoff rule.
This year, if three teams finish pool play tied at 2-1 or 1-2, the tiebreaker rule will be used to remove one from the equation as either the pool winner with a 2-1 record or loser with a 1-2 record. The remaining two teams will playoff for second place and promotion to the next round.
"I really like the playoff thing," McClaren said.
But even without the new rule, McClaren is a huge fan of the tournament. The format has encouraged development around the world and nowhere is that more evident than in the Netherlands, where winter baseball training is done indoors on basketball courts and the coaches have become expert innovators.
"When I was in Italy with (former big league stars) Barry Larkin and Steve Finley and Dale Murphy and Bruce Hurst, the Netherlands had more coaches there than anyone," McClaren said. "There were eight or nine coaches from the Netherlands there. After our practice and games we'd be in the classroom, they'd ask questions."
"I like what they're doing. I like what Italy is doing. I like what Germany is doing. There are some good things going on in Europe with baseball. Baseball brings people together and that's what I love."
"My first experience with the WBC was a great experience and I'm still doing it. I think the concept is great and it's getting better."