Soccer coach Bruce Arena was standing about where center field at Marlins Park
now is when he was asked years ago what it would take for his U.S. National
Team to finally play a home match with the crowd on its side.
"Not play Colombia in Miami or Mexico in Los Angeles," he said in the old Orange Bowl.
The sport in question today is baseball and the man in charge is Joe Torre, but little else has changed. Most likely, if Team USA reaches the second round of the World Baseball Classic at Marlins Park next week, it would face Latin American opponents who could figuratively kick up their feet and enjoy raucous support in Little Havana.
And that might be the good news.
As Team USA begins pool play in Phoenix against Mexico on Friday, it is just 7-7 from the first two editions of the WBC, in 2006 and 2009. It's a tepid record fueling a debate on whether Commissioner Bud Selig's pet project is living up to expectations, requires tinkering or is a "classic" deserving of the same fate as Coke Classic.
Team USA's lineup will boast R.A. Dickey, Ryan Braun and the Marlins' Giancarlo Stanton, but missing are Bryce Harper, Mike Trout and Justin Verlander. Torre, recognizing he'd face reluctance by some players or their organizations to release them from spring training, personally contacted most prospects to gauge their interest. He then hand-picked a strong starting lineup and bolstered it with utilitymen rather than assemble another all-star roster.
"I think we're all excited to be here rather than just look at it as an all-star tournament and we're just going through the motions," Orioles outfielder Adam Jones said.
Many of the other 15 teams don't have such concerns. Now that baseball no longer is contested on the Olympic or World Cup level, the WBC represents the only chance for clubs such as Cuba's to shine globally. When the Yankees' Hiroki Kuroda was asked by The New York Times why the WBC is so important to fans in Japan -- winner of the first two WBCs -- he shot back, "Why don't people in the U.S. care more?"
Fear of injury is one reason, and it didn't help that Mark Teixeira hurt his wrist Tuesday and returned to the Yankees, who expect him to miss about two months.
Indifference is illustrated by Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels telling The Philadelphia Inquirer, "Winning the World Series is a little bit more important than whatever trophy they give for the World Baseball Classic."
Some players gripe about spring training being extended to accommodate the WBC, triggering suggestions it should be during the All-Star break or after the season.
"I think this is the time, no doubt," said Luis Sojo, Venezuela's manager and former Yankees infielder. "In our case, all the players start working in the winter, a lot of guys play in Venezuela, and they're 100 percent right now. ... After the season, guys are going to be out of gas."
Sojo, Venezuela's manager since the WBC's inception, said for the first two tournaments, "Maybe people were thinking, 'Oh, I'm going to go there just to see what's going on." Now? "This group of guys, they want to win."
While in Miami in 2009, Team USA players wondered if they'd ever get to play before a "home" crowd. Sojo, who lives in Tampa, smiled at the thought of a reprise. "No doubt, they're the visiting team," he said.
The Americans at least making the final in San Francisco would boost interest in a country that typically perks up only when the United States is dominant and rarely experiences storm-the-streets passion for international team sports that is witnessed elsewhere.
But Selig backed this event to increase interest worldwide. Among the results: MLB has sent $15 million to various baseball federations, and Taiwan drew its largest baseball crowd ever, 23,431, against South Korea. On the flip side: Baseball America reported that actual attendance for Cuba vs. China in Japan was fewer than 100.
The Marlins said they have sold about 6,000 tickets for each of six games at Marlins Park, Tuesday through March 16. The four teams favored to play in Miami, based on world rankings, are the United States (No. 2 behind Cuba), Canada (6), Venezuela (8) and either Puerto Rico (12) or the Dominican Republic (13).
Other familiar faces could include four pitchers: Steve Cishek (Marlins, Team USA), Henderson Alvarez (Marlins, Venezuela), Anibal Sanchez (ex-Marlin now with Tigers, Venezuela) and Carlos Zambrano (ex-Marlin, unsigned, Venezuela), plus infielder Miguel Cabrera (ex-Marlin, Tigers, Venezuela). A Team USA appearance would mean the return of closer Heath Bell, who flopped with the Marlins last year.
Media interest has been mixed. This year's WBC is on MLB Network, not ESPN. Japanese reporters outnumbered American reporters for Team USA's workout Monday in Arizona. Newsday dubbed it the Why Bother Classic. That kind of thinking is the opposite of Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips'.
"We want to be the first USA team to win it all," Phillips said. " ... We're here to make the country happy."
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