Tuning in to the WBC

Now that the World Baseball Classic has begun, I find myself interested. There was little chance of me truly getting pumped up for this new tournament beforehand, but now that the games have begun, several factors have drawn — and held — my interest.

The games. Quite simply, I’m drawn to the competition. I love baseball and I’ll watch spring training games, but other than catching an at bat by Lastings Milledge and a couple of batters faced by Mike Pelfrey, I couldn’t even stay glued to Sunday’s Mets-Puerto Rico exhibition game. But for games that mean something — even if that something is a trumped-up “world championship” — it’s held my interest. On Tuesday, when play began stateside, I kept the Venezuela-Dominican Republic game on at work and then watched the U.S. and Mexico both at work and at home. While I spent yesterday afternoon at the opening-round doubleheader for the Big East Tournament, I caught a little of the early innings of the U.S.-Canada game at a bar while I had dinner. Later that evening, I watched the end of the game — the Miracle on Grass! — at a friend’s house.

Yankee-hating. George Steinbrenner hates the WBC. So I’m inclined to like it. Besides, the deeper into the tournament the United States goes, the longer the Yanks are without Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Johnny Damon. They’re also without Al Leiter, but I don’t see how that hurts them. The fact that Leiter — a Jersey guy himself who pitched quite well for the Mets — is even on the team is ridiculous. The guy is far from an effective pitcher. Obviously past his prime, he’s also clearly past the point of being a solid contributor to a major-league pitching staff. Why he’s believed to be a pitcher worthy of representing the United States — actually, he’s worthy of representing the U.S., but not worthy of helping them to a title — is perhaps the biggest question on this roster.

The matchups. Yes, it’s only spring training, but there are still some matchups I’ve been drawn to. Watching Carlos Beltran single in two runs against Billy Wagner in the exhibition on Sunday was nice when I realized, as a Mets fan, I don’t have to worry about facing Wagner in the ninth inning anymore. He’s ours! I know we’re treated to a Johan Santana-David Ortiz at bat once or twice a season, but because the Twins can’t seem to get past the Yankees in the playoffs, we’ve yet to see it in a setting any bigger than a Tuesday night July meeting. Ortiz’s bomb on Tuesday seemed a little bit more impressive to me. And last night, as the U.S. tried to rally in the eighth, the Phillies’ Chase Utley came to the plate with the tying runs on base and two outs. On the mound was Canadian Scott Mathieson — one of the Phillies’ top prospects. When Mathieson left a pitch out over the plate, Utley drilled it high and deep to center, flicking his bat away with the flair of a 40-home run hitter who had just hit one he was sure was leaving the ballpark. Only Utley hit it to straightaway center in a pretty expansive Chase Field, where Adam Stern sprinted back to the warning track and caught it just before he slammed into the wall. The kid let the young stud hit it, but he got him to hit it in the right place.

The best-laid plans … The favorites are obviously the United States and the Dominican Republic, with Japan, Venezuela, Puerto Rico and Canada expected to put up a fight as well. Cuba is a wild card because they’re isolated and so little is known about them as a team. The way the draw is set up, the U.S. and Japan would meet in the second round, ideally advancing and facing off in the one-game semifinal in San Diego on March 18. But Canada’s upset of the U.S. yesterday means the Americans have to beat South Africa tomorrow and hope that Mexico either loses to Canada tonight or, at least, doesn’t win by a score of either 1-0, 2-1 or 2-0 (something about the tiebreaker of runs per nine innings). A Mexican win by one of those scores means Steinbrenner gets his stars back on Sunday. Not having the U.S. get to Round 2 would be a nightmare for Bud Selig and his pet project. He’s maintained that the primary purpose of the WBC is to expand global interest in the game, but having the U.S. eliminated so early would deal a significant blow to any efforts to increase American interest in the tournament. But hey, it might influence the International Olympic Committee to reconsider its decision to do away with the sport after the 2008 Summer Games in China. As I understand it, there is one last chance for another vote in 2009, but unless the rest of the world catches up quickly and the U.S. fixes the political mess its made in Iraq and elsewhere in the world, there’s little chance that any further votes would produce a different outcome.

There are still some kinks to be worked out, but I think this is a tournament that could become something. Finding a way to ensure the best from each country participate is the biggest need; not having guys like Manny Ramirez and Vladimir Guerrero playing dilutes the whole package. But unless they find a way to fit the tournament into the November period after the World Series and before Thanksgiving, they’re always going to have that problem. I can’t say I felt a powerful urge to see such a tournament, nor do I think I’ll miss it if it doesn’t return in 2009 or 2013, but it’s here now and so long as the games are on, I don’t see a reason not to tune in.

It’s still baseball, after all.

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