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Major leaguers fail to live up to Classic challenge

by John Manuel
March 17, 2006

Major League Baseball is well on its way to pulling off a successful first run of the World Baseball Classic.

MLB has learned some lessons in doing so:

• Don't use the International Baseball Federation's tiebreakers in pool play. Play an extra game if you have to. Baseball was meant to be settled on the field. This ain't soccer.

• Work out contracts with umpires long before the tournament. Umpires are best when they are not noticed, so the fact that umpiring has been a story in the Classic tells you the umpiring hasn't been up to snuff.

• Don't underestimate Cuba. Maybe Cuban players get overrated, but the Cuban team should never have been taken lightly as a threat to win the Classic.

• Injuries are going to happen. It's baseball.

• International baseball can be pretty cool.

This last lesson is one MLB thought would be the case, but no one quite knew just how good the first edition of the tournament would be. In terms of thrilling games, passionate fans at the ballparks and even ESPN2's television ratings, the Classic has been a success.

Two crucial segments have missed out, however, on the excitement surrounding the classic. First are American baseball fans, so stuck in their ways that they're more disappointed that-gasp!-minor leaguers are playing in big league spring training games than they are by Team USA's uninspired performance in the Classic. Perhaps March Madness is too much for the Classic to overcome in its first run, but here's hoping American baseball fans pay more attention to the 2009 edition, when the event will have at least a little history behind it.

Second, and more important, are major league players. Even the ones who showed up didn't prove that they "get" international baseball.

Consider this: The nations that relied most heavily on major league players, with one exception, fell short in the Classic. Of the four semifinalists--Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Japan and Korea--only the Dominicans have a roster full of big leaguers. Cuba has its team of "amateurs," and while Japan and Korea's teams are professionals, they can count their American big leaguers on two hands.

But the teams that relied on big leaguers are on the sidelines. Sure, Team USA was a disappointment. Was it any more disappointing than Venezuela, which hit a paltry .186 for the event in six games and lost both games started by its ace, Johan Santana? Or Puerto Rico, with a lineup of big leaguers that throttled Cuba in the first round but lost on its home turf at Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan in a winner-take-all game in pool play?

Canada and Mexico also had lineups stocked with major leaguers, and neither one will be playing in San Diego (though both get to tell their fans that hey, at least we beat the Americans).

Major leaguers, for the most part, said all the right things about enjoying the tournament, picking up on the passion and the nationalism such events bring about, and all said they were invested in the Classic. But it didn't show on the field.

None of the teams stocked with major leaguers executed when needed, and it goes beyond Jeff Francoeur getting picked off at second base on Michael Young's failed bunt attempt against Mexico, or even Team USA's pitiful track record for hitting with runners in scoring position (5-for-41, not counting the game against South Africa). It was evident when Canada's Jeff Francis gave up four runs in the first inning against Mexico in a game Canada had to win to advance out of the first round, or when Puerto Rico's Alex Cintron hit into a rally-killing double play in the eighth Wednesday night against Cuba, or when Venezuela's . . . well, any Venezuelan hitter came to the plate in any situation.

Only the Dominican Republic's big leaguers responded and improved during the event. David Ortiz and Adrian Beltre swung power bats as if they were in midseason form, with Big Papi also showing mid-season bat-tossing form against Cuba. When Alfonso Soriano got off to a bad start (try 0-for-11), manager Manny Acta reacted, replaced him in the lineup with Placido Polanco--a better fit in the leadoff hole and a better defender at second base. Polanco keyed the Dominicans' final two victories with five hits against Cuba and Venezuela out of the leadoff spot. Meanwhile, with Francisco Cordero out of the Classic's first two rounds with a sore shoulder, Duaner Sanchez stepped in at the back of the Dominican bullpen and closed out the 2-1, winner-take-all victory against Venezuela, pitching around an error by Miguel Tejada that prolonged the ninth inning.

Team USA had no such hero step forward for them when it mattered. The same can be said for Mexico, which was overly reliant on Jorge Cantu for offense, or Canada, or Venezuela, which got a combined 9-for-59 effort out of Bob Abreu, Miguel Cabrera and Magglio Ordonez.

Meanwhile, Korea's stars have carried the team, from Chan Ho Park's 10 scoreless innings and three saves to Seung Yeop Lee's five homers, including game-winners against Japan and Mexico. Cuba's Yuliesky Gourriel has lived up to his pre-tournament hype at the plate and with his perfect relay throw that cut down Ivan Rodriguez and Puerto Rico on Wednesday, and Pedro Luis Lazo shoved 97 mph fastball and mid-80s sliders down the Venezuelan lineup's throat in Round Two. Those teams stars made plays when their teams required it. The teams that relied on their big leaguers, with the exception of the Dominican, didn't.

Japan . . . well, Japan can thank karma for its spot in the Classic semifinals. Japan wasn't quite as bad as Team USA and lucked out in the wacky tiebreaker system. But after umpires helped blow its second-round 4-3 loss to Team USA, Japan deserves to move on more than the Americans.

After all, fewer of its major leaguers were on the club to mess things up.

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