The WB: A developing Classic

Feb 28, 2006 8:22 AM

Since baseball is no longer part of the Olympics, the inaugural World Baseball Classic stands alone in playing for your country. The trouble is, a number of top players say no to the chance.

"I just can’t figure out why anyone would turn down the opportunity to represent your country," ex-Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda said last week in a national television interview.

Then again, Lasorda is forever blinded by loyalty. Whether it’s Dodger Blue, coaching the USA to gold in the 2004 Olympics or representing major league baseball for the WBC, he’s apple pie.

The jury is out as to how the Classic will go over with the general public, but Las Vegas is booking it so that’s enough to kindle our interest.

"I’m looking forward to seeing it," said Wayne Braddock, veteran baseball sage and sports book manager at the Eldorado in Henderson. "I like the idea of having a World Baseball Classic, even though the timing takes away major leaguers from spring training."

The United States and the Dominican Republic are the favorites in the 16-team competition taking place over 18 days beginning March 3. The USA will play its early round games in Phoenix. Semifinals and finals take place in San Diego.

"I would rate the USA as the ones to beat, with the Dominican Republic and Japan as the top challengers," Braddock said. "I haven’t had that much time to fully study the field, but I’ll know it well by late next week."

I think we’re on safe ground to say South Africa and China won’t advance. My surprise teams are Cuba and Japan. I’m especially intrigued by the Cubans, which humbled the Orioles in Baltimore several years ago. Fidel knows baseball.

Classic rosters change on a daily basis, but there’s plenty of talent to go around and the competition should be worth watching.

Here’s a short breakdown of the pools. The odds to win it all come courtesy of Caesars Palace.

Pool A (Tokyo)

China (300-1): No point to discuss players. Wouldn’t know a one. With no known success in international competition, the Chinese figure to go out fast.

Taiwan (30-1): Chien-Ming Wang produced a nice rookie year for the Yanks. Don’t know much else, but Taiwan has been dominant in the Little League World Series over the years. They know the game and are fundamentally sound.

Japan (9-1): Any team with Ichiro is dangerous. The Yanks have made a nice living recruiting Japanese ballplayers, such as Hideki Matsui. Definitely, a team to watch.

South Korea (35-1): Chan Ho Park (Dodgers, Rangers) is familiar to us, as is Jae Seo during his days pitching for the Mets. Hee-Seop Choi (Cubs, Dodgers) has some pop. A nice longshot possibility.

Pool B (Phoenix)

USA (5-6): Unquestioned favorite, but with that comes added pressure of winning. Much like Canada in Olympic hockey, there’s no room for error. Clemens, Peavy, Jeter, A-Rod, Teixeira, Griffey, Chipper. Great team, even without Bonds.

South Africa (300-1): Maybe if Retief Goosen and Ernie Els batted 3-4, the South Africans would have a shot. Their best chance is golf’s British Open.

Mexico (45-1): Secure the border! The Mexicans hate us, but this isn’t soccer. They have players, but no real superstars. Garciaparra thought about playing, but said No-mar.

Canada (75-1): This would be a nice pick-me-up after the hockey carnage in Torin, but Steve Nash doesn’t play baseball and Larry Walker retired. Colorado’s ace Jeff Francis heads the pitching staff that includes Baltimore’s Erik Bedard and ageless reliever Paul Quantrill. Janet Gretzky hasn’t made any bets to our knowledge.

Pool C (San Juan)

Cuba (15-1): As noted earlier, the Wild Card entry of the tournament. Once the USA gave clearance for Cuba to appear, the Classic became legitimate. Forget politics, Cuba is a baseball power. Remember Jose Contreras (Yankees, White Sox) and his effectiveness in postseason play. Defections are always a distraction, but this baseball hungry nation can beat anyone.

Netherlands (200-1): Where’s Bert Blyleven when you need him? Maybe Heidi will show up! Actually Danny Haren (A’s, Cards) is a solid starting pitcher, but you have to win more than one game in this tourney. Sidney Ponson (Orioles) is also listed. Heck, I thought he was Panamanian! If Andruw Jones (Curacao, Braves) plays, this could be a team to follow.

Panama (60-1): They still list Mariano Rivera (Yanks), Ramiro Mendoza (Yanks, Red Sox) and Bruce Chen (Braves, Phils) on the pitching staff. If so, Panama has something. Carlos Lee (Brewers) can bash. Not a bad longshot.

Puerto Rico (15-1): The home field advantage most definitely helps. An overload of catchers — Javy Lopez (Orioles) and the three Molinas. Javier Vazquez (D’backs, Yanks, White Sox) has great stuff and Joel Pineiro (Mariners) can throw innings. They have Delgado and Beltran from the Mets. I like this team.

Pool D (Orlando)

Australia (150-1): If they serve Fosters in the stands, the Aussie odds improve. I do know there are plenty of Outbacks near The Mouse. Rod Laver has two Grand Slams, but there aren’t enough good tennis players on the roster.

Dominican Rep (6-5): Too bad they won’t have Man-Ram and probably Big Popi, but the DR’s are deep. Just look at all those major leaguers from San Pedro de Macoris — we counted eight. Robinson Cano (Yanks) is a stud at 2B. If Guerrero, Soriano and A-Rod have second thoughts, this would be a powerhouse. Still good.

Italy (200-1): Love pizza, but the Italians have little chance. Olive Gardens are all around greater Orlando. Personally, I would feel better if the casts of Casino and Sopranos were involved. Italy does have Matt Mantei (Marlins, D’Backs) with that 100 mph, 100-walk arm.

Venezuela (5-1): Off the highly emotional victory in Caribbean World Series. Don’t think for a minute that a World Baseball Classic title wouldn’t mean more to native Ozzie Guillen than a World Series ring. OF Bobby Abreu can bash with anyone.

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