It might be interesting, but not for the reason they think. I'm talking about the World Baseball Classic, an oddball tournament set to begin during MLB's spring training, to the disgust of Major League executives, featuring national teams from 16 countries. This is the first go-around of what organizers say will be a quadrennial event. Of course, the World Baseball Classic has nothing to do with the unfortunate fact that baseball will be dropped from the Olympics following the 2008 Beijing Games.
The tournament, which kicks off on March 3, is produced by Major League Baseball/Major League Baseball Players Association and sanctioned by the International Baseball Federation (IBAF). It's supposed to be a Hands-Across-the-Border-Thrill-of-Victory-Agony-of-Defeat deal meant to move Major League Baseball merchandise into the hands of gullible foreigners.
So, 16 national teams -- Australia, Canada, China, Chinese Taipei, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Italy, Netherlands, Japan, Mexico, Panama, Puerto Rico, South Africa, South Korea, United States, and Venezuela -- play in a four-round tournament. The first round will be played in Tokyo, Puerto Rico, Phoenix/Scottsdale, Orlando, and consist of four pools of four teams each. Teams within each pool will play each other once and the best two teams from each pool will move on to Round 2.
Round 2 will be played in Anaheim and Puerto Rico and will consist of two pools of four teams. Each team will play each other once. The best two teams from each pool (four teams), move on to the semifinals, which, ahem, will be played in Petco Park. The winners of the semifinal games play for the championship on March 20, again at Petco Park. The winning team is promised a championship trophy. All players on the top two teams are promised a medal, and you can imagine how thrilling that's going to be for a 38-year-old Red Sox right-hander making $16 million a year. Follows are the first-round pools:
Pool A: China, Chinese Taipei, Japan, South Korea
Pool B: Canada, Mexico, South Africa, United States
Pool C: Cuba, Netherlands, Panama, Puerto Rico
Pool D: Australia, Italy, Dominican Republic, Venezuela
Now, I could list millionaire American ballplayers who backed away from the honor of representing their country blah, blah, blah, and quote their lame excuses, or franchise owners bitching about their stars missing training camp and risking injury, but I think, as in most things, Barry Bonds says it for us. Bonds told USA Today, "I just don't want to do it. Come on, the World Cup [Classic] isn't the Olympics. Who cares? Does it mean anything?"
Well, Barry, there is something that might make this tournament worth watching. Cuba.
Yes, that commie isle just 90 miles off our shore. We should keep in mind that the rest of the world doesn't share our obsession about Cuba. At least 165 nations recognize Cuba, including our last remaining best buddies: Britain, Canada, Australia, Poland, and Qatar. The current U.S. embargo against Cuba has been in place since 1962, and I can state for the record that it does not appear to be working.
The embargo has not affected Cuban baseball. Cuba has had a professional baseball league since 1878. World Cup Baseball (another international baseball tournament) has been around since 1936, although few fans have heard of it. Its tradition is national teams and amateur athletes. The first World Cup consisted of two teams, but it has grown. There have been 16 teams in the tournament since 1994. The usual countries are members: U.S.A., Britain, Venezuela, Mexico, Colombia, South Korea, Japan, Italy, Chinese Taipei, and so on. Cuba has won gold 25 times, silver once, and bronze twice. Baseball has been in the Olympics since 1992. Cuba won gold in 1992 and 1996, silver in 2000, and gold in 2004. Over 150 athletes born in Cuba have played in Major League Baseball.
There is no way you can host an international baseball tournament and not invite the country who is the defending world champion and has won three of the four Olympic gold medals ever awarded in that sport. So, Cuba was invited.
And the United States Treasury blocked their participation. After Cuba was disallowed, corporate baseball lobbied for reconsideration and reversal knowing that without Cuba their tournament was over. The IBAF said it would withdraw its sanction if Cuba were not allowed to play. Without Cuba, Puerto Rico said it would not host the games. U.S.A. Olympic Committee chairman Peter Ueberroth asked the administration to reverse its decision and so forth. After a month of this, the government folded.
What turned them around, officials claimed, was Cuba's offer to donate any profits from the tournament to Hurricane Katrina victims. The tournament money, if any, is nothing...is laughable, is a fig leaf. Cuba's offer was a slap at Bush, a reminder to the world how badly the American government treated, and continues to treat, its own citizens.
Cuba vs. U.S.A. at Petco Park. Now, that would be a game.