Diamondbacks reliever Brian Bruney received a crash course in international baseball when he suited up for Team USA in the 2003 Americas Olympic Qualifier in Panama.
“They were waving flags and screaming and yelling the whole time. Nonstop,” Bruney said, comparing the atmosphere to that of a soccer match. “They would quit maybe a little bit in between pitches, but if they threw one strike the crowd would go nuts.
“When we lost, it was like nothing I had ever seen. Everyone was so excited that we lost.”
That’s just the type of excitement World Baseball Classic organizers are hoping for when competition begins today in the three Western Hemisphere pools — Pool B in Phoenix and Scottsdale, Pool C in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and Pool D in Orlando, Fla. Korea and Japan already advanced out of Pool A in Tokyo over the weekend.
“This is going to be the most important international baseball event ever staged,” Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig said. “The Classic is going to grow the game internationally, will bring in new fans, open up new markets, and increase the talent pool of the players. . . . After next March, the bandwagon, I can assure you, will be full.”
Selig foresees a World Cupstyle competition in which the best baseball-playing countries battle for national pride in packed stadiums and in front of millions of television viewers outside the United States.
Such international interest has already been hinted at by the number of media credentials requested — reportedly more than that of the Winter Olympics — the 40,000-strong crowd that watched Korea upset Japan Sunday at the Tokyo Dome, and the standing-room-only crowd that showed up for an exhibition between Mexico and the Diamondbacks Saturday at Tucson Electric Park.
But the Classic hasn’t been received with universal enthusiasm. Controversy has swirled regarding everything from the tournament’s rules to the player selection process.
In order to help underdog teams match up, organizers are allowing nonresidents to suit up. As a result, Pennsylvania-born Mike Piazza will suit up for Italy and California-born Nomar Garciaparra was to don a Mexican uniform before pulling out of the tournament.
Cuba was almost banned from competing by the U.S. State Department, which prompted Puerto Rico to threaten to hold out. Pitchcount limits, mercy rules and 14-inning caps on tied games have given the tournament a Little League feel.
Then there were the defections of many of the game’s biggest stars. The U.S. lost Barry Bonds, Carl Crawford, Lance Berkman, John Smoltz and Tim Hudson, among others. Eric Gagne and Ryan Dempster bailed on Canada. Tadahito Iguchi and Hideki Matsui never signed up for Japan. Mariano Rivera said no thanks to Panama. Even the Dominican Republic was bitten by the losses of Manny Ramirez and Pedro Martinez.
“Unfortunately every time we lose somebody it’s big news,” said U.S. manager Buck Martinez, who despite player defections will still skipper the tournament favorite. “Instead of talking about (Albert) Pujols and (Vladimir) Guerrero and those guys playing, (the media) talk about Manny not playing. That’s the nature of the business because of the stature of that guy.”
As long as no one gets hurt and players aren’t run down by the time September rolls around, there’s no reason to believe the tournament will not be back in 2009, and then every four years after that.
American interest is not even all that necessary for success. The tournament organizers’ goal is to spread the word of baseball to other parts of the globe as evidenced by the Asia-friendly starting times of the final three games.
But if Derek Jeter or Dontrelle Willis injures himself giving October effort in March, future tournaments could be met with serious resistance from major league clubs and players.
“It depends on how it works this year,” Puerto Rico infielder Alex Cintron of the Diamondbacks said. “If it works perfectly and nobody gets hurt and it’s organized pretty well, I think it can continue every four years. But if a player gets hurt or if people don’t like the way it is or the players don’t like how it works, I think it can be over. This year can be the last year.”