Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Dominican Republic Comes Out On Top -- Venezuela, with an upset win over the home squad, Puerto Rico, clinches the Caribbean Series title for the Dominicans. A 3-1 victory by Venezuela took the drama out of tomorrow's match between Puerto Rico and the Dominicans. With wins in their first five games, the Dominicans have won this year's version of the legendary baseball winter classic.

An anticlimactic finale isn't the only disappointment of the tournament. This was the first time that the Caribbean Series was televised in the States. I had been looking forward to seeing some of the tremendous emotion I have only read about in years past. Unfortunately, few top players were allowed by their club teams to participate in the tournament. This represents another missed opportunity by Major League Baseball to promote the sport.

There were familiar names sprinkled throughout, like Javier Valentin, Erubiel Durazo, Joey Cora, and Armando Rios, whose two-out, two-run single beat Mexico in the 10th inning last night. Still, the only really big star was Miguel Tejada. In fact, the Orioles seemed to take a very different attitude to this competition, as Tejada was joined by teammate Ramon Hernandez. The rest of Major League Baseball, unfortunately, did not allow their stars to play in this competition. Watching faded stars, such as Vinny Castilla, Jose Lima, and Luis Polonia, playing alongside young unknowns who have yet to make their mark in the majors, really diminished the potential and appeal of this tournament.

Has anyone really helped themselves in the tournament? Well, Rios turned in a great performance, hitting over .600 coming into the game tonight. He hasn't played in the majors in several years, and is looking for an invite to a spring camp. The Red Sox' Julian Tavarez looked great against Venezuela last night. Vladimir Nunez, who had surgery last year, turned in a strong series, and kept Venezuela in the game against Tavarez and his Dominican mates. Another strong Series performer has been Anderson Hernandez, who struck out in every way possible, when the Mets annointed him their second baseman, coming out of spring training last year.

The biggest human interest story in the series might have been Juan Gonzalez, who is trying to create some interest among major league scouts. After being reduced to playing in an unaffiliated league last year, following multiple injuries, the former star slugger seems to be remaking himself as a singles hitter. Tonight, with two-out in the ninth inning, Gonzalez just beat out the throw from deep shortstop, to leg out an infield single. That gave Gonzalez his 9th hit in 22 at-bats, and sent the winning run to the plate. Pinch-hitting for Luis Matos, Victor Rodriguez flied out to center to end the game. Surely some team could find a spot in their spring training camp to give Gonzalez a long look.

Next year is the 50th Caribbean Series. Perhaps, the MLB teams will take a more enlightened view of the Series then. I understand the fear of injury -- Luis Ayala never got to pitch for the Nationals last season, because of an injury he suffered during last year's World Baseball Classic. The truth is that Ayala was an injury waiting to happen, sooner or later, after being horribly overused by Frank Robinson the year before. Look at what happened to Gary Majewski three months later, during the season -- same story. With the starting rotation the Nats will have this year, I fear for the health of their bullpen, again.

Players are allowed to play Winter ball -- there is no reason why they shouldn't also be allowed to play in international competition. Whatever happens with the Carribean Series, it is essential that every major leaguer be made available for the next World Baseball Classic. While many stars were grudgingly allowed to play, others were not. In fact, not only should they be allowed to play, they should be encouraged to try out for their national teams. It is amazingly shortsighted to dismiss the value of the tournament. It will prove to be the greatest marketing tool in baseball's arsenal, if the owners are committed to taking full advantage of it.

Think I'm overstating my case? Just take a look at the major sports. Soccer has achieved world sports dominance largely through the intense competition and unmatched popularity of the World Cup. Hockey has expanded its appeal by making its top players available for the Olympics, and the World Cup of Hockey, established in 1996. That was, for me, the finest international sports tournament I have ever watched, with a level of skill and excitement that I have not witnessed before or since. The NBA allowed its Dream Teams to stoke worldwide interest in the sport, but the poor showings by second and third-rate U.S. national teams have been a huge factor in professional basketball's declining popularity here.

Excitement generated by high-level international competitions really does carry over to generating interest in the professional leagues. Pay attention, MLB owners. Stan Kasten reads the blogs? Read this, Mr. Kasten: As baseball increasingly looks overseas to fill out its rosters, it should be of paramount interest to baseball owners to do everything possible to generate interest in the sport. The WBC has the potential to approach soccer's World Cup in fan fervor, but it will only happen if the best players are allowed to participate, and given the time to prepare. This last piece will require the MLBPA union to bend the rules for the WBC. Both sides -- management and labor -- should strive to make the WBC the grand spectacle it could be.

If it's a second-rate product, fans will respond accordingly. If, however, baseball does what it needs to do to make the WBC the top priority, rather than an afterthought, the fans will turn out in droves. Not enough Americans playing baseball anymore? What if American kids got really excited about watching Barry Zito pitch for the U.S.A., against David Ortiz, or maybe facing Ichiro Suzuki, during a tight pitching duel with Daisuke Matsuzaka? How many more kids would go out and play some ball with their friends? The logic is so obvious I can't believe that the owners haven't fully bought into it.

There are issues surrounding the World Baseball Classic, to be sure. Reasonable minds can differ as to what might be the best format for the WBC. Should it continue as a preseason tournament? Should it be modified to be a qualifier for a final, to be played over the All-Star break...or, perhaps, leading to a four-team tournament to be played over the break? Or, should it be played after the season -- with teams training while the playoffs are played, and the tournament played in warm climes, during November? These are questions that should be debated, but with the idea that the goal should be to present the strongest, most appealing tournament, generating the greatest fan interest.

Speaking of international competitions: the U.S.A. men's national soccer team renews its rivalry with Mexico Wednesday night. The U.S. has called in a couple of big guns from England, including Carlos Bocanegra, and Tim Howard, who finally assumes the mantle of number one goalkeeper. Go, U.S.A.!!!

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