Archive for Thursday, March 16, 2006

The Fly Route

March 16, 2006

Great. The last thing I needed was a reason to root for Alex Rodriguez and be thankful that Derek Jeter was waiting on deck.

I may not like cheering for said Yankees, but I have no choice, and as much as it pains me, I can't help but love the World Baseball Classic.

The pet project of Major League commissioner Bud Selig, the WBC is in its inaugural season and it has far exceeded my expectations.

Oh, there are still plenty of critics. Many would rather see the game played after the World Series and one relatively good idea expands baseball's all-star break and squeezes the WBC in there.

But it's here now, and it's fun.

It's fun because people care, even if America hasn't seemed to catch on yet.

The three-round tournament features 16 teams from all around the world, though the majority are from North America and the Asian Pacific rim.

While some of the teams are terrible -- South Africa, Chinese Taipei and the Netherlands were quick to exit in the tourney's first round -- some are surprisingly good.

Canada beat the Americans in the first round, and Korea knocked off Team USA Monday.

Prior to the start of the tournament, I figured the best part would be the virtual all stars teams a few of the competitors would be able to field. The Dominican Republic team is flat out sick, with David Ortiz, Adrian Beltre, Alfonso Soriano, Miguel Tejada, Jose Reyes and Albert Pujols.

Venezuela boasts a similar stable of big dogs.

But teams without the big names have been just as effective. Korea remained the only undefeated team as of Wednesday afternoon and Puerto Rico, Japan and Cuba all were fighting at advance to the final round.

Virtually ignored here despite being played mostly in the United States, the tournament is immensely popular in the other countries involved.

Thus far we've learned the United State might not hold the dominating edge it seemed it would. Team USA lost to Korea, 7-3, and saw its record fall to 3-2.

But there's something about it that makes this better than the other recent U.S. flops in international competition. After the U.S. basketball team went home with its tail between its legs and an unthinkable bronze medal in the Athens Olympics and the hockey team came home last month from the Turin Olympics with jack squat, it's evident these ballplayers care more and are trying harder.

The Dominican and Venezuelan teams are full of big names, but the U.S. team is rife will all stars as well, guys who not only have excelled on their individual teams, but have proven their mettle in postseason and the World Series.

I didn't expect any of them to get very excited about a seemingly meaningless pre-baseball season tournament, but many have said its like nothing they've ever experienced.

Baseball players don't often get the opportunity to compete at the same level as hockey, basketball and even football players do. Professional sports are great, but rarely can they match the pure passion associated with college and amateur athletics, or the emotions stirred up when national teams meet as the do in the Olympics.

Baseball has a weak presence in college and professionals still aren't allowed to compete in the Olympics, thus the boys of summer have missed out on the high-stakes drama that no amount of George Steinbrinner money can buy.

For A-Rod, Jeter and most of the U.S. team, the Classic represents the first chance to play for Team USA. For the rabid baseball fans in all the countries we so quickly dismiss, it represents a chance to see their top-tier national heroes do battle. And the passion spills over, even though a TV.

The World Series is great and Major League Baseball is all around fantastic -- I never expect the World Baseball Classic to out do either -- but for something different, something pure and something that's simply fun to get into and cheer for, the WBC's hard to beat.

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