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WBC has chance to be classic
Sacramento Bee


March 06, 2006

Amid all the whining and American apathy toward the World Baseball Classic, it's been easy to overlook one important point: This Classic could be a classic.

The first true "world" series could be a blast, a rare shot in the arm for baseball that's steroid-free.

In fact, the only real problem with the tournament - aside from ignorance among some American players and media - is that it's been rigged so Team USA has an embarrassingly easy path, facing lightweights such as Mexico, Canada and South Africa (not a misprint) in the first round. Team USA opens play in Phoenix against Mexico on Tuesday.



Led by Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter and Roger Clemens, Team USA includes powerhouse gringos such as Chipper Jones, Mark Teixeira and Derrek Lee of the Chicago Cubs. And what a bullpen, including - among others - Chad Cordero, Brad Lidge, Brian Fuentes and Huston Street, the A's closer and last season's American League Rookie of the Year.

For their part, the Mexicans boast new A's starter Esteban Loaiza, aging slugger Vinny Castilla, former Athletic Erubiel Durazo, three guys in the outfield named Garcma who aren't even related - and, hopefully for them, a cooler full of Corona.

And then the quarterfinals in Anaheim would feature USA games against Japan and South Korea, who have already advanced from an Asian group that played its first-round games over the weekend in Tokyo. True. The Japanese with Ichiro Suzuki are no pushovers. But barring a team-wide bird flu, Team USA will reach the finals in San Diego on March 20 without having played a single game against two teams with equal or superior talent - Venezuela and the Dominican Republic. Or against two teams with enough talent or potential to beat anybody - Puerto Rico and Cuba.

Those four will fight it out with each other beginning Tuesday, when Venezuela plays the Dominican Republic in Orlando, Fla. - a game that might have been the final were the Classic organizers not Americans.

On one side, Venezuela has the best collective starting pitching in the tournament in Johan Santana, Freddy Garcma and Carlos Zambrano, among others. And on the other side, the Dominicans field a lineup of superstars in David Ortmz, Albert Pzjols, Moises Alou, Miguel Tejada and - the Dominicans hope - Vladimir Guerrero.

"I've already excused my kids from going to school that day," said Luis Alfredo Alvarez, a Venezuelan-born broadcaster who hosts the Spanish-language version of "Baseball Tonight" for ESPN Deportes. "I don't see anybody working in Venezuela on Tuesday."

It'll be the same way in Puerto Rico, where the home team will face Cuba on Friday.

"That game sold out immediately," said Jorge Ortiz, a baseball writer for USA Today who is of Puerto Rican descent. "The people in Puerto Rico will be beside themselves."

That will especially be true next week, during the Classic quarterfinals in San Juan, when it's expected that all four Caribbean powerhouses will face each other, with two advancing to San Diego for the semifinals and two being eliminated.

The Puerto Ricans are not as talented as Venezuela or the D.R., but they do have the home-field advantage and big-league standouts Ivan Rodrmguez, Carlos Delgado and Javier Vazquez. And the Cubans?

"Nobody knows anything about these guys," said Pedro Gomez, a baseball reporter for ESPN who is of Cuban descent.

What we do know is that the Cubans dominate Olympic competition, know how to excel in short tournaments like the Classic and - for the most part - believe in Fidel Castro's revolution more than potential millions in the big leagues. There also is no other team the Bush administration and anti-Castro Cubans in Miami would hate to see facing the Americans in the championship game at San Diego's Petco Park.

"The Cubans against the Americans at Petco Park!" Ortiz said.

It would be hilarious if the Cubanos won, considering that the Bush administration almost barred them from playing and that the Cubans will reportedly donate their winnings to Hurricane Katrina victims. But you get the feeling the Americans could steal this tournament by beating a Caribbean team tired from two weeks of intense, emotional competition.

No matter. I'm picking Venezuela to win it with Santana, the Minnesota Twins hurler and former Cy Young Award winner, throwing zeroes along with other stellar Venezuelan pitchers.

Why? Because this game is now spelled: biisbol.


Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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