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ISSUE 119 VOL 12 PUBLISHED 3/3/2006

Inside the Lines: Dream becomes reality

By Ryan Maus
Staff Writer

Friday, March 3, 2006

Sixteen months ago, in this very space, a certain would-be sports columnist (and rabid baseball fanatic) raved about what seemed like the most exciting development in baseball since the introduction of interleague play:

“[T]he the possibilities [of a baseball World Cup] are nothing short of mind-boggling,” I wrote in the Nov. 12, 2004 issue of the Messenger.

“If indeed this [tournament] could become a reality, baseball may someday have an event that rivals soccer’s World Cup in terms of scope and popularity ... One thing is certain: Come March of 2006, the world will be watching.”

Well, that fateful month and year has finally arrived, and baseball’s “World Cup” (WBC for short) is in deed a reality – the 16-team tournament has already begun in Asia and picks up next week in North America. While no one is pretending that this tournament will be challenging the real World Cup anytime soon, the WBC does have the look of a unique event that should pique the interest of baseball fans around the globe. But does this reality live up to hype that I helped create back in 2004? The answer is both yes and no.

“It does remain to be seen whether multi-million dollar superstars like [Barry] Bonds could be convinced to participate, or whether certain owners (i.e. George Steinbrenner) would allow their highly-paid investments to play, but many people are confident that such hurdles can be overcome,” I speculated all those months ago.

This was one such pitfall that was easy to predict when hypothesizing about the Classic, and the results have been mixed. Naturally, it turned out that a number of big-time players will not be participating in the inaugural event, for a variety of legitimate and not-so-legitimate reasons.

The 43-year-old Bonds, coming off two major knee surgeries a year ago, understandably declined the invitation to play for Team USA. Numerous others, such as Boston superstar Manny Ramirez, simply expressed no desire to represent their home countries (the Dominican Republic, in this case) in what major league baseball has been calling “an unprecedented baseball event.”

However, there have also been a few nice surprises for baseball fans. While Steinbrenner refused to let Yankees catcher Jorge Posada play for Puerto Rico (despite Posada’s strong wishes to the contrary), he is begrudgingly allowing his $220 million duo of Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter to anchor the left side of Team USA’s infield, greatly improving the Americans’ championship hopes.

“The tiny nations of the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico would be formidable as well … but even they would be hard-pressed to score against a Venezuelan team with [2004] American League Cy Young award winner Johan Santana.”

In contrast to the American squad, which features a few ho-hum members due to player refusals (who out there has ever heard of Dan Wheeler?), Central American nations have the almost full support of their major league sons. The Dominicans, expected to challenge the United States for the crown, boast a lineup that is quite possibly the most powerful ever assembled: Alfonso Soriano, Miguel Tejada, Albert Pujols, David Ortiz and Vladimir Guerrero will provide more than enough offense, although their pitching staff looks thin without Pedro Martinez (who is questionable due to injury).

The Venezuelans have emerged as the chic pick to win it all, with a solid-if-unspectacular lineup and the tournament’s most talented pitching staff, including Santana, Carlos Zambrano, Freddy Garcia, Carlos Silva and Francisco Rodriguez.

“The beauty of a baseball World Cup is that it would have something for everybody.”

Over the past year and a half, the WBC has materialized better than I could have realistically hoped when I wrote that first article.

Yes, the format still has many flaws. Most insiders would prefer that the tournament be held after the season rather than during Spring Training, when players are still working themselves into shape. And pitchers will be on strict pitch counts, which limits the risk of injury but detracts from the authenticity of this alleged “world championship.”

At the same time, the WBC has been generating considerable buzz in many participant nations and may potentially increase the game’s worldwide popularity.

But who’s actually going to win the dang thing? The easy money is on the Red, White and Blue, but our Latino brothers to the south are out to prove that superpower status does not translate over to the baseball diamond.

This tournament, long hoped-for by fans like me, has finally come to fruition. It’s not quite a bona-fide World Cup, but it might be the cloest facsimile baseball fans will ever get.

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