The biggest problem that the new World Baseball Classic faces -- now that Fidel Castro is in and Barry Bonds is out -- is pure, simple, flop-sweat fear. Nobody knows quite what to expect of this 16-team Olympic-style love fest, and that's downright terrifying to a lot of people.
What superstar will back down next? What if everyone shows up out of shape? How's this whole tournament going to affect Spring Training? What if someone gets hurt?
How can anyone beat the Dominican Republic? Can South Africa actually win a game? Does anyone from the Italian team even know what a can of corn is?
(I may be totally off here, but according to Babel Fish, we're talking latta di cereale.)
It's positively heebie jeebie-inducing, all this uncertainty. But the WBC waits for no one, except maybe the U.S. Treasury Department, so by the time this particular March madness marches in, someone's going to yell "Play Ball!" and this thing will take off, like it or not.
Still, there's nothing to be afraid of -- or not as much as you might think. In fact, it should be somewhat comforting to know, at least from an American point of view, that someone has been gnawing on all these questions for awhile now. Once the WBC starts its first round on March 3, there's a better than decent chance that most of the teams involved will have a reasonably good idea of what's going on and how to handle it.
If that's not exactly reassuring ... well, we're just going to have to live with it. Rome wasn't built in a day, you know.
We all probably ought to be more like Mark Teixeira, the Rangers' first baseman. He is absolutely raring to go, no questions asked. He's been working out for a couple of hours a day, pretty much every day, so that he'll be ready.
"I want to win this thing more than anybody," said Teixeira, who is so into the US of A and the whole international flavor of this tournament that he proudly points out that he's half Italian and his surname is Portuguese. "You put us up against the rest of the players in the world, and I'm gonna want to win even more."
Johnny Damon, the new Yankees' center fielder, also is ready to rock the WBC. When Buck Martinez, the manager of the U.S. team, called Damon to ask him about signing on, Damon jumped at the opportunity. He didn't even bother to ask George Steinbrenner first.
"This is my first opportunity to represent the U.S.," said Damon, who is already working out in Florida, "and I'm thrilled about it."
Both Damon and Teixeira want a little of that feeling that Brewers pitcher Ben Sheets had during the 2000 Olympics. Sheets, who pitched the gold-medal- winning game for Team USA in Sydney, thinks so much of the concept of the WBC that he wants to be included on the U.S. team even though the Brewers object and he's coming off a torn back muscle.