There's a World Cup going on? Really?
It's hard to tell in the United States these days, but the world's largest international baseball tournament is winding down in Europe, and the U.S. is the leader in the clubhouse. The 2009 World Cup has spanned seven nations -- they played first-round games in baseball hotbeds such as Croatia, the Czech Republic and Sweden -- and nearly three weeks. It's not quite the soccer World Cup, and it's not even the World Baseball Classic, but it is a 22-nation event that has involved 100 players from major league organizations, not to mention Cuba's top-level national team.
"It's got to be the most expensive international tournament ever," said one scout who's a veteran of international baseball. "It's not like they had a ballpark just waiting for everyone in Zagreb or Sundbyberg [Sweden]. This is unprecedented."
Cuba has won the World Cup 25 times, while no other nation has won more than three. The last time there was a World Cup, the United States beat Cuba in the championship game. On Thursday, Team USA beat Cuba again, taking a 5-3 victory in Nettuno, Italy. It was the club's 12th straight victory after a Cup-opening loss to Venezuela. It made Team USA the favorite and was another sign of the parity that has come to international baseball.
"Our guys have persevered through a lot of irregular travel and the schedule," U.S. manager
Cuba's mission is to get back on top. The island nation has to win Friday (or get losses by the Netherlands or Puerto Rico) to advance to the final, but in recent years, the Cubans have not been able to close the deal. Since winning the 2005 World Cup in the Netherlands against a fairly weak field -- Japan, South Korea and the U.S. sent less-than-stellar rosters -- Cuba has not won a major international tournament, and the landscape has changed. The Olympics are no longer the biggest tournament, as baseball was voted out of the program through 2016. In its stead, Major League Baseball has created the World Baseball Classic, with Japan's big leaguers
Cuba sent most of its 2009 WBC roster to Europe for the Cup, with the obvious exception of hard-throwing lefthander
Cuba's national team program was grooming Chapman to become the new ace, something Cuba hasn't had since Contreras' defection to the Yankees. That hole has been fatal in recent years, and young lefty
It was Tiffee's fifth homer of the event and No. 35 of the tournament for the Americans, by far the most of any team. Team USA's power-oriented style has proven effective internationally in recent years. The U.S. has proven adept in recent years at mixing top prospects with minor league veterans such as Tiffee, who played on the '08 Olympic club and has emerged, in Rodriguez's words, as the captain of this year's club.
American minor leaguers beat Cuba in '06 (in Havana for the Olympic qualifier) and in the '07 Cup. That 2007 event featured an American team heavy on prospects who have gone on to major league success.
USA Baseball has experienced more success when it fields teams of players before they become rock stars. The U.S. won gold in 2000 in the Sydney Olympics with a club of future big leaguers, led by
On the current roster, Smoak has emerged as the team's star, with nine home runs to set a USA Baseball record. The switch-hitter out of South Carolina was a high school teammate of Orioles rookie catcher
"He's really been carrying us," Rodriguez said. "He's shown great plate discipline and patience, and he knows what to do when he's ahead (in the count). It's not just home runs; it's big hits, in clutch situations.
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Sunday's final will have plenty of future big leaguers -- especially if the U.S. gets its rematch with Cuba -- but little hype. If present big leaguers aren't involved, American fans won't apy attention. But American teams have proven that the fewer big league players they have involved, the better.