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July 15, 2005
What has 18 legs, catches flies with a five-foot vertical leap and is red and blue all over? The answer is Puerto Rico's baseball team for the 2006 World Baseball Cup, whose Caribbean qualifying round will be played at Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan.
After more than a decade of talk, Major League Baseball is finally rolling out the red carpet on a new kind of World Series, set for March of 2006 with 16 countries over 18 days and three locations and fraught with more obstacles than Kennedy Avenue has potholes.
At this stage, MLB's plan is to hold four qualifying rounds in three places: The United States, Puerto Rico and Asia. Korea, Taiwan, Japan and China will compete in Group A with South Africa, Canada, Mexico and the United States competing in Group B. The top two finishers in each group advance to a second round with the winners advancing to a semifinal. On the other side, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Panama and the Netherlands will compete in a Group C while Australia, Venezuela, Italy and the Dominican Republic will duke it out in Group D. The top two finishers in Group C and D will advance, with the winners gaining single-elimination semifinals. Semifinal winners will meet for a one-game final March 20 in the United States.
The announcement came just months prior to the International Olympic Committee's decision to boot baseball, a medal sport since 1992, out of the Olympics following 2008.
During this week's All-Star game, MLB commissioner Bud Selig told Baseball Writers' Association of America reporters that the IOC would live to regret its decision.
"There are a lot of rumors about how they operate and what they think about America and so on and so forth," Selig told the Associated Press. "I can't quantify those things, but I am confident today in telling you that the World Cup, the World Classic, will be so big that they will change their outlook on why baseball should be in the Olympics."
Let's hope so. Because up until now, getting pros into the amateur baseball game has been a disaster. (I hate to say I told you so, but I told you so. Please see my column from Nov. 14, 2003: "Take Baseball out of the Olympic Ballgame." http://www.puertorico-herald.org/issues/2003/vol7n46/PRSportsBeat0746-en.shtml). Pros were eligible for the 2004 Olympics, but MLB would not release any of its major league stars because of the date (Olympics are in August). Then, in a cruel twist of fate, the United States did not even qualify for Athens, having been eliminated by Mexico.
Puerto Rico, meanwhile, refused to even play the game after MLB conditioned the use of the Puerto Rican players as well. Well, guess what? For MLB's World Baseball Classic, MLB will once again determine who gets to play. Each participating country will have to submit the names of its major league players to MLB for approval first.
Japan has tentatively agreed to the tournament, but the Japanese player's association has raised one collective eyebrow at the whole thing and has not yet said whether it will put its players on the on-deck circle. Ditto for Cuba. Humberto Rodriguez, president of INDER, Cuba's Sports Institute, told AP this week he wasn't sure whether he would send his players.
"Cuba doubts it will participate, primarily because the reasons and the interests behind the event have yet to be stated clearly," Rodriguez told AP. "However, I can already tell you ... that if it's about capitalizing baseball to show off economic power, we are not in agreement."
Rodriguez is no doubt worried that if MLB organizes an international baseball tournament on its terms, the United States will have the home-team advantage over Cuba.
To which I say this: While it's true that MLB missed the perfect forum for international baseball (duh, the Olympics), it is acting no differently than FIFA (the International Soccer Federation) did when it assured that World Cup soccer would always be a bigger ticket than Olympic soccer. So let Selig and MLB have their World Baseball Classic. Somebody tell Cuba and Japan to play by MLB's rules (the U.S. invented the game anyway) and let their bats do the talking.
What baseball fans really want to see is great baseball. Latin baseball fans want to see Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and the United States all going at it in extra innings.
The closest Puerto Rican baseball fans ever come to a baseball "Dream Team," was the 1995 Caribbean Series squad, which featured Roberto Alomar, Juan Gonzalez, Carlos Delgado, Bernie Williams and Edgar Martinez in its lineup versus the Dominican Republic.
P.R. loses its World Group Fed Cup bid
Puerto Rico lost its bid for World Group II over the weekend at the Olympic Training Center in Salinas, 4-1 against Indonesia. The island team was playing for World Group rights for the first time in its Fed Cup history, having beaten Canada this past April to finish atop Group I. Indonesia, meanwhile, was battling to retain its World Group status, gained in 2004 with a victory over Slovenia. The Indonesian team had slipped onto the bubble this past April after losing to Germany and was playing without the services of its top player, Angelique Widjaja (currently ranked 170th). Indonesia has played in 36 Fed Cup competitions and reached the quarterfinals in both 1973 and 1991.
The ITF recently altered the style of Fed Cup play to mimic Davis Cup with the World Group divided into two tiers, the top eight in World Group I and the bottom eight in World Group II.
Former Federation Cup coach, player and two-time Olympic gold medalist Gigi Fernandez said she blames her absence from the team and poor psychological preparation for the games lost by the island's top two players, Kristina Brandi (ranked 68th on the WTA Tour and 161st-ranked Vilmarie Castellvi). Fernandez was not asked to coach Fed Cup this time around and Juan Carlos Escudero, who led the team to Americas Group I victory this past April in Uruguay, was given the job.
"There's no way they should have lost," said Fernandez. "I don't feel they were properly prepared. It's a shame I wasn't there. I feel I could have helped them."
Fernandez said she was still smarting from Fed Cup committee president Humberto Torres' selection of Escudero over her as captain for this Fed Cup tournament.
"I played Fed Cup for the United States 15 times and I've been coaching Puerto Rico Fed Cup for the past eight years," said Fernandez, who stressed that she did not voluntarily quit as Fed Cup coach, but rather was fired. "There's no way they should have lost to Indonesia, which didn't even have a player ranked in the top 200."
Brandi suffered severe stomach cramps and dehydration (it was more than 100 degrees on Salinas' center court both days) in her 6-4, 6-2 loss to Indonesia's Wynne Prakusya on the final day. Brandi spent the following day hooked to an IV in Ponce recovering from the match.
Puerto Rico Tennis Association president Gary Montilla said the coaching decision was based solely on the team's previous performance and there was nothing more to read into it.
Fernandez repeated that she missed the Uruguay tournament because the University of South Florida (where she is head women's tennis coach) was playing its conference finals.
Gabrielle Paese is a sports reporter in San Juan. She was the 2000 recipient of the Overseas Press Club's Rafael Pont Flores Award for excellence in sports reporting. Comments or suggestions? Contact Gabrielle at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Her Column, Puerto Rico Sports Beat, appears weekly in the Puerto Rico Herald.