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Champion baseball teams do sweat the small stuff

These days if you want a part to fix a home appliance you call the manufacturer's service phone number and end up talking to someone in Bombay, India. Your next door neighbor is suddenly unemployed and you discover he spent his final six months training his replacement, who moved -- along with the job -- to Beijing.

It's called outsourcing, and judging from the recent World Baseball Classic tournament, it seems to be catching on in that sport. At least the part about baseball work ethic has been outsourced by the United States.

The idea of baseball outsourcing is not to line up cheap labor, as it is in most American businesses, but to become so arrogant and full of one's self that our stars feel mastering fundamentals and attention to detail is now the dominion of lesser mortals from lesser nations.

For evidence there is the USA's sorry performance in the World Classic in which the only team our guys outclassed was South Africa. The popularity of baseball in South Africa ranks somewhere between ice hockey and shuffleboard.

It could have been even more embarrassing for the Americans if it hadn't been for umpire Bob Davidson apparently being overcome by a patriotic desire to see his profile on Mount Rushmore. Davidson made an inexplicably horrible call early in the tournament that absolutely robbed Japan of a victory over the U.S. In the Americans' game against Mexico, he ruled that an obvious Mexican home run was still in play and limited the batter to a double. A few minutes later a Mexican player stood on the dugout roof and displayed the yellow streak on the ball as a result of it hitting the foul pole for what should have been a home run. The plate umpire walked over and told him to shut up.

The Mexicans won anyway, even though they had been eliminated from further play by the tournament's odd rules that declared they had to beat the Yanks by a score of exactly 1-0 in exactly 14 innings.

After their elimination, the U.S. players, especially Alex Rodriguez, groped for explanations. A-Rod suggested that the reason for the poor showing was that the Americans didn't have enough time to meld as a team. Derek Jeter wasn't buying that.

The reactions of two highly respected Americans, Jeter, captain of the New York Yankees, and Buck Martinez, manager of the American team, are worth the attention of major league baseball.

"It's a great excuse if you want to use it," Jeter said of A-Rod's rationalization. "But that's not the reason we lost. We lost because we didn't pay enough attention to detail, like moving runners around the bases and making plays in the field. Look at Korea. They didn't make one error in their first six games."

Martinez later spoke of how the work ethic of the better teams in the tournament dwarfed that of major league players.

"They see hundreds more ground balls during infield practice and the hitters swing the bat 100 times more a day than we do in North America," said the old Blue Jays catcher. He would like to see the reintroduction of infield practice in the major leagues.

"I'd like to see our outfielders throw a lot more than they do now during infield practice. The best-throwing outfielders in the '70s and '80s threw well because they threw so much during infield practice. Repetition is a great teacher."

A case in point was the exciting Japan-Korea game in which a Korean hitter drove in two runs with a double deep to center field. The Japanese outfielder started digging from the moment the ball was hit. Once he retrieved the ball he began a perfect cutoff-relay play that gunned down the runner trying to stretch the double into a triple. It also ended the Korean rally.

"You have to pay attention to detail," Jeter added. "The teams that I've played on that won did the little things well -- moved the runner around, made plays in the field.

"Nowadays people are so caught up in being on the [TV] highlight shows, hitting home runs. If you want to beat teams like Japan you do the small things. That's how you win."

Larry Felser, former News columnist, appears in Sunday's editions.

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