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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Not Steeped in the Classic

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Baseball was in the air when the Observers met on the balmy day that preceded the dreary weekend. With the major-league season a month away, fans had something besides spring training to focus on: the second World Baseball Classic, aimed at building the sport’s international appeal. The Observers have global vision, but they’re not sold yet.

Frank: I know what you’re thinking on a day like this.

Artie: I’m thinking it won’t be long until I’m complaining that it’s too dang hot.

rank: But you’re also thinking what I’m thinking: Baseball!

Artie: I think you’re right.

Frank: But are we also thinking World Baseball Classic? For myself, not really.

Artie: Same here. Among other things, I’m not bowled over by the Team USA roster. In the outfield we’ve got our own young superstar, Ryan Braun, and slugger Adam Dunn, but after that it’s Curtis Granderson and Shane Victorino.

Frank: You’re holding a grudge against Mr. Victorino, who hit a grand slam off the brief Brewer, CC Sabathia, in the playoffs last fall. What about the infield?

Artie: Your guy Derek Jeter, along with Chipper Jones, Dustin Pedroia, Jimmy Rollins, David Wright, Mark DeRosa and Kevin Youkilis.

Frank: That’s a strong unit. And pitching-wise?

Artie: The starters start well with Roy Oswalt and Jake Peavy. But there’s a drop-off to Jeremy Guthrie and Ted Lilly. And the rest of the staff includes such big names as Brad Ziegler, LaTroy Hawkins and J.J. Putz.

Frank: Every one of them is important because they have lots of rules about pitch limits and days between pitching if a guy throws a certain number. Peavy and Oswalt might not matter as much as the many guys who follow them.

Artie: Let’s see, there are 16 teams.

I guess the long shots include the Netherlands, South Africa and, of course, Italy, not being able to play Joe DiMaggio, Phil Rizzuto or Rocky Colavito.

Frank: But they are playing Racine’s Vinny Rottino! During the first Classic in 2006, I didn’t have a big rooting interest. And when Team USA went 3-3 and missed the semifinals it didn’t astound me. I think America’s troubles in world basketball over the last decade persuaded me that we’re not invincible.

Artie: Who’d we lose to in aught-six?

Frank: Canada in their first four-team pool, South Korea and Mexico in the second. The double-elimination format in the first two rounds can produce oddities.

The ‘06 champion, Japan, also was 3-3 but reached the semis. Korea went 6-0 and beat Japan twice before the Japanese got them in the semis. Then Japan beat Cuba for the title.

Artie: Let’s face it: The World Cup, this is not.

Frank: The soccer world shuts down every fourth summer for the World Cup. That sure isn’t happening now, with spring training going strong. And I think American fans are far more interested in their big-league favorites.

Artie: Major League Baseball would never take two weeks off during the summer for this “Classic.”

Frank: For the same reason MLB has never let the top players go to the Olympics. Gotta keep that cash flow going!

Artie: That and the big fear: injuries, especially to pitchers.

Frank: Any club with a pitcher in the tournament is on tenterhooks— whatever they are. So you have the pitch limits, which make the games a bit artificial—playoff intensity but with spring training restraints.

Artie: Not that injuries can’t happen in spring training, too. Witness the Brewers.

Frank: Backup catcher Mike Rivera has a bad hamstring, outfielder Tony Gwynn a lingering shoulder problem.

And Braden Looper, the new man in the starting rotation, is trying to ease back from a strained muscle in his left side.

Artie: There’s a silver lining, though. Eric Gagne has a bum shoulder, which ends the chance that he’ll mess up the bullpen for a second year.

Frank: An oblique-muscle problem like Looper’s can drag on. Braun had one in the last few weeks of ‘08, and although he played through it he later admitted it bothered him.

Artie: I guess somebody had to replace Ben Sheets on the DL. At least in Looper they got a cheaper version of Sheets. But this is my point: Looper and the Brewers are my interest, not whether Cuba can knock off Japan.

Frank: If I happen upon a Classic game while I’m roaming the channels I’ll stay a while. But as much as I love watching baseball live, I don’t last long on TV. The games just take too stinkin’ long.

Artie: Amen to that.

Frank: It’s only the second time for the Classic, and it happens while American fans are distracted by spring training and college hoops. But I think another factor is that one of Bud Selig’s successes in MLB—interleague play—works against the Classic. We’ve seen many of these stars face each other already.

Artie: I’m puzzled by Americans who play for other countries because of their ethnic heritage. Take Alex Rodriguez. Born in New York, went to high school in Florida, played for Team USA in ‘06—but on the Dominican roster this time?

Frank: All the money he makes sure is American.

Artie: But I guess he wasn’t really motivated to play for the Dominicans. Look at the extreme measure he took to get out of it—coming up with a hip thing that could keep him out of the Yankee lineup for months.

Frank: Do you think his cousin poked him in the wrong spot with those steroid injections?

Artie: The Yankees are stuck with A-Rod for another eight years after this, ain’a? And he’s already 33—in other words, the age of the average Little Leaguer from Taiwan.

Frank: It’s Chinese Taipei now, for political reasons. And they’re out of the Classic already with two losses.

Artie: Obviously, their Little League coaches said, “We can’t risk our best players. On to Williamsport!” But I’ll bet you a buck two-eighty there’s a lot of interest in the Classic in other countries.

Frank: Japan and Korea for sure, and the Latin countries, with all their big-leaguers.

Artie: And Cuba; it’s the Commies’ World Series. And hey, the Netherlands! My guy Bert Blyleven can come back and pitch for them!

Frank: As an international marketing tool, the Classic probably is everything Mr. Selig wants. If it brings more money into the coffers, hey, that’s why Bud’s there.

Artie: That way he can get another raise. Unless he wants to be like Roger Goodell in the NFL and give some of his salary back.

(One day later, the phone in Artie’s apartment rings.)

Frank: Did you see it, man? Did you see it?

Artie: Cripes, Frank. It’s Saturday afternoon. I’m smack-dab in the middle of dusting my handsome credenza.

Frank: The Dutchmen did it! The Netherlands somehow beat the mighty Dominicans in the Classic.

Artie: You mean Blyleven really did pitch? A shutout at age 57 to gild his Hall of Fame credentials?

Frank: Not quite, but Bert was part of it. Somehow, Sidney Ponson and four others combined for a 3-2 victory. And who do you suppose is the Dutch pitching coach?

Artie: Gotta be B-Bly, as the young people would say. He had those guys channeling himself. But who the heck could be on the Dutch roster?

Frank: Besides Ponson, the only guy I’ve heard of is Randall Simon.

Artie: You mean the infamous Wiener Whacker, who knocked over our racing Italian Sausage at Miller Park in aught-three?

Frank: Like Ponson, he’s from the Netherlands Antilles.

Artie: Wow! Does the Italian team know Randall bopped their variety of red-hot? If they play the Dutch, watch out!

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