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World views

Here's the lowdown on baseball's, soccer's big events

Posted: Wednesday December 7, 2005 2:30PM; Updated: Friday December 9, 2005 2:25PM
Mike Piazza
Don't expect to see Mike Piazza on the U.S. team.
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

You'll pardon me if the only World Cup fever I have is of the soccer variety. I'm just not buying this World Baseball Classic. Never mind that Mike Piazza is playing for Italy. The reason this isn't going to catch on is that baseball players aren't brought up dreaming of representing their country like soccer players are. True, soccer players get paid for appearing for their national teams, but they're not doing it for the cash. There's a certain prestige and honor that comes with representing your country in the World Cup (and the recognition that comes with potentially being a national hero doesn't hurt). Baseball can't expect its best players to suddenly wake up with a similar sense of patriotic duty. As a result, they're going to have to beg big name guys to play. You saw what happened with the Dream Team. Everyone was dying to be on the first one, then the enthusiasm waned every year and the megastars passed on joining the team.

There are other reasons I'm not sold on the WBC. There aren't enough countries to sustain a huge tournament. Honestly, as long as they don't adopt an even more liberal open-border policy when picking sides (and if every player decided to take part), the only teams that could seriously give the U.S. a run for its money would be the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. Japan might cause some trouble. That's it. Who's going to want to watch a loaded U.S. team play Italy? Or Australia? What are the odds when the Aussies take the field, Dave Nilsson will be playing first. And MLB's commitment seems a little half-assed. If they wanted to do this right, they'd hold the tournament right after the World Series or, even better (at least climatologically), during the season, when everyone is in top form. As it is now, pitchers will be on pitch counts. It's going to be like a bunch of lopsided All-Star games.

As for the other World Cup? FIFA, soccer's governing body, is showing a true gift for making anything into an event. This Friday's draw for the World Cup will be televised live to over 100 countries, including the U.S., where it can be seen on ESPN2. Even Tuesday's announcement of the seeds and the format for the draw was played up as a huge story.

The U.S. narrowly missed out on being one of the seeded teams for the tournament. Under the arcane formula FIFA devised, which took into account a country's performance at the last two World Cups plus its world ranking, the Yanks were one point behind Italy for the eighth and final seed. (Here's an idea of how ridiculous the formula was: England, which hasn't gotten past the quarters in the World Cup since 1990 and which is ranked ninth in the world, somehow ended up second to Brazil.)

So what does it all mean? First, we didn't get hosed. No way is the U.S. one of the eight best teams in the world. (We finished ahead of the Netherlands, who didn't qualify in 2002, and the Czech Republic, which is second in the world but didn't qualify in '98 or '02.) Second, thanks to the rest of the setup, it means there's a very good chance that when the draw is completed and the "Group of Death" (the toughest group in the tournament) is anointed, we're going to be in it.

Here's why: The eight seeded teams go into one pool and each is assigned to a different group, meaning the seeds won't have to face each other in the group stage. (If you're new to this -- and good for you, by the way -- the Cup has a group stage in which teams play each of the three other teams in its group, and the top two teams in each advance to the 16-team single-elimination phase.) Pool 2 consists of Australia and teams from Africa and South America. Pool 3 is eight European teams. Pool 4 is the U.S., plus Central America and Asia. Each group gets one team from each pool.

Since the other 15 teams in Pools 2 and 4 are, with the exception of South Korea, substantially weaker, at least on paper, than the U.S., no one is going to want to see the Yanks in their group. There's a decent chance we'll be the third-best team in our four-team group; that pretty much constitutes a Group of Death.

What do U.S. fans hope for? Well, we know the Yanks' group will include a seeded team (whom the U.S. will not be as good as) and one from Pool 2 (whom the U.S. will be better than). So how good or bad a draw the U.S. gets will most likely come down to which European team comes out of pot three. If it's the Czech Republic, the Netherlands or Portugal, that would be awfully bad. (Imagine a group of, say, Argentina, the Dutch and the Ivory Coast. Doesn't bode well.) If it's the Ukraine that wouldn't be bad.

At any rate, I'll be back on Monday, Dec. 12 to look at the draw.

My favorite absurd ticker item: I understand how media types like to take credit for scoops. But the other day, ESPN ran a bit on its crawl that said, "ESPN's Peter Gammons reports that former major league manager and ESPN analyst Buck Martinez will manage U.S. team in World Baseball Classic." Buck's one great chance at a scoop and Gammons -- his own colleague -- beats him to the story.

Here's No. 1 on my "List of Reasons Why I'm Never Getting on a Plane Again."

Idiot of the Week: Lost in this story of a Lebanese man getting his arm stuck in a Ukranian john while trying to retrieve his cell phone is that the Lebanese man was in the Ukraine to study at the Odessa State School of Refrigeration. Make your own joke about the final exam having a "How do we know if the light goes out when the door closes?" question. Or how the syllabus includes that episode of the Brady Bunch in which Bobby and Greg get stuck in Sam's meat locker. You get the picture.

Thanks for stopping by, and stay classy.