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Monday, February 13, 2006

Cuba Amateurs Face Millionaires in World Baseball Classic

By Circles Robinson

The best baseball players that money can buy and a small group that play for the sport of it will face off starting March 3rd in the World Baseball Classic.

US Major League Baseball has always called its national championship the World Series, believing its ability to purchase the finest from each country has made it the unquestioned king. However, since many MLB players will be playing with the teams of their native countries in the Classic, the US team’s superiority is not totally guaranteed.

The biggest question mark of the event is the underdog Cuban team, fresh off victories in the 2005 Baseball World Cup and the 2004 Athens Olympics, but against weaker competition. Over the years some of Cuba’s best have been lured by fat contracts to play in MLB but none of those players will be playing for the island, which prefers to continue its tradition of amateur-only sports.

"Cuba will play well, even though they have stolen many of our good players," President Fidel Castro said recently.

Organized by MLB and its Players Association, the Classic has pitching rules tailored to the liking of US baseball team owners and venues geared to help the US team redeem its country’s poor showings in other international baseball events.

For its US corporate sponsors, the World Baseball Classic is like any other commercial endeavor. Tickets, the majority already sold for the opening rounds, run from $12.50 to over $100 per game and advertising revenues will add to the profits. Hotel rooms run from $175 to $475 per night. All teams except Cuba will take home a percentage of the revenues. The island offered to donate any funds to victims of hurricane Katrina.

Sixteen teams play the first round in four pools between March 3-10 with the top two teams in each group moving on to the quarter finals. The only team that could play all its qualifying rounds, semi-finals and finals to a home crowd is the USA, a significant advantage.

A team must win at least six of eight games to be crowned the winner, two of three games in each of the first two rounds to qualify for the semifinals, a must win in the single-elimination semis, followed by a win in the one game finals.

While baseball analysts alert that anything can happen in such a short series, the first round where the top two teams qualify is unlikely to produce any surprises.

Group A, probably the most competitive of the pools, pits favored Japan, playing at home against rivals Taipei and Korea, all considered among the top 10 teams in the tournament. Their other rival China is ranked among the weakest.

Pool B, the least competitive, pits the heavily favored United States team at home, with Canada and Mexico battling for the second qualifying position, and South Africa along for the ride.

Pool C, is expected to be a match between favored Puerto Rico playing at home, with a slate of well-paid MLB players and Cuba, which will field an all amateur squad similar to its Olympic and World Cup Champion teams. The other rivals, The Netherlands and Panama are given little chance to qualify for the second round.

Pool D, to be played in Orlando, Florida, is considered a foregone conclusion with the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, both loaded with top paid MLB players qualifying and Italy and Australia doing the best they can.

Therefore, the second round will most likely include Japan and either Korea or Taipei from Pool A, the United States, and Canada or Mexico from Pool B, in one group, with Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela in the other.

Those in London and Las Vegas who take legal wagers on such sporting events predict that the semifinals will be between the United States and Japan in one match and Venezuela and the Dominican Republic in the other. They also consider it most likely that the finals will be played between the United States and the Dominican Republic because they have the most major leaguers on their squads.

To accommodate the worries of Major League Baseball team owners that their star pitchers could get hurt before the MLB season opens in April, the WBC rules limit pitchers to 65 throws in the first round, 80 in the quarterfinals and 95 in the semifinals and finals. Pitchers throwing more than 50 pitches are obliged to take 4 days rest before pitching again.

Relief pitchers cannot work consecutive games if they exceed 30 pitches and cannot appear in a third straight game independent of how few pitches they threw in the other two.

These rules are considered to the detriment of the teams with less depth in their pitching and who would have otherwise used their best whenever ready and needed.

In the amended tournament rules, the 16 teams’ provisional 60-man rosters must be reduced down to 30 at least five days before their first game. The list must include at least 13 pitchers and 3 catchers.

Cuba has suspended its national league play from February 13 to March 23 to allow the provisional roster players to train for the Classic.

The last time Cuba played against a Major League team was back in 1999 when it split a two game series with the Baltimore Orioles, losing 3-2 in an 11-inning thriller in Havana and winning easily 12-6 in Baltimore.


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