- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 7, 2006

VIERA, Fla. — It was just an exhibition game against a Washington Nationals team made up of mostly minor league players.

But when the Panama squad took the field at Space Coast Stadium on Saturday, it seemed like the game was for the pride of an entire country.

For the players, that is what the World Baseball Classic is all about.

But for the organizers — an unprecedented partnership between Major League Baseball and the players association — the inaugural tournament is about something else. It’s about international money, about planting baseball in the hearts and minds of fans around the world so their wallets will follow.

Major League Baseball’s grand experiment to expand its international marketing began Friday in Japan, where China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan play.

The competition gets under way today in Orlando, Fla.; Phoenix (where the United States faces Mexico in its opening game); and San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Much of the crowd that watched Panama lose 10-7 to the Nationals’ split squad waved flags, chanted “Viva, Panama,” blew trumpets and, at times, danced on top of the dugout.

It may have been the most passion ever displayed for an exhibition game.

“It was very important for me to play in this tournament,” said Baltimore Orioles pitcher Bruce Chen, who was born in Panama. “I feel like I owe it to my country. I have been playing in the United States, and I have been doing good. But for me to represent my country and wear the Panamanian jersey makes my family and my friends back in Panama very proud.”

That’s what strikes many of the major leaguers who have taken time out of spring training to play for their national teams — the feeling they get when they put on their country’s uniform.

Mike Piazza is among the biggest stars in the game, a certain Hall of Famer. But he clearly was moved the other day when he put on the “Italia” jersey and worked out with the Italian team at the Detroit Tigers’ spring training complex in Lakeland, Fla.

“It was a kick to put on the jersey,” Piazza said. “[Manager] Matt Galante made a great point. He said we represent the country of Italy, and that is what we are doing here. There is a lot of national pride in Italy right now, and we want to help encourage that.”

But let’s face it: National pride may be the fuel that drives the action on the field, but the goals of the tournament are far more mercenary.

Major League Baseball wants to increase interest, not in the game in general but in its game in particular. It comes down to selling hats and jerseys and television rights. There also is the hope that countries not represented in the majors will develop a homegrown player the whole country will follow — as with Pau Gasol and Spain or Yao Ming and China in the NBA.

That’s why baseball and the players union hired high-powered New York advertising and public relations firm Grey Worldwide to market the WBC.

“Grey Worldwide’s creative energy and strategic ideas will certainly help us make this international event the start of a new tradition,” Paul Archey, senior vice president of International Baseball Operations for Major League Baseball, said when the move was announced in October.

It is not a tradition yet, though.

Only about 16,000 people showed up in Japan to watch the first game Friday between their home team and China, and they saw a humiliating 18-2 loss by China in a game that was ended an inning early because the “mercy” rule was invoked.

However, the crowds picked up at the Tokyo Dome, and about 40,000 watched Korea upset Japan 3-2 yesterday in the final game of Pool A’s first round. Korea and Japan — both considered powerful teams — moved on to the second round and will play in the United States.

Some major league executives — primarily New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner — groused about the disruption of spring training and the fear of their players getting hurt in the tournament.

And some players aren’t excited about the competition. A number of countries won’t have their best players participating: Barry Bonds won’t play on the U.S. team, Manny Ramirez isn’t on the Dominican team and Mariano Rivera isn’t on Panama’s squad. Hideki Matsui declined to play for Japan, whose team is managed by Japanese baseball legend Sadaharu Oh.

Still, there are plenty of stars on the field. Roger Clemens and Derek Jeter will play for the Americans. Carlos Delgado plays for Puerto Rico, Albert Pujols for the Dominican team and Ichiro Suziki for Japan.

The players who are participating are excited about it.

“I want to win this thing more than anybody,” Texas Rangers first baseman Mark Teixeira said. “I think every baseball player wants to go out there and win no matter what he is playing for. You put us against the rest of the people in the world, and I’m going to want to win even more.”

The United States is no lock to play in the championship game March 20 in San Diego, though given the weakness of their pool it is likely the Americans at least will reach the semifinals.

The Dominican team, which features the Nationals’ Alfonso Soriano, is strong. So are the squads from Mexico, Puerto Rico and Venezuela.

But what makes this tournament particularly unique is that even if the American team does not make the finals, the game still likely would feature many major league stars who baseball fans around the world already know.

And, baseball officials are hoping, it still would create some new fans, new pride — and some new money.

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