Ready or not, nations collide in inaugural event

Thursday, March 2, 2006

TAMPA, Fla. -- So, if need be, would Bernie Williams take out Derek Jeter at second base in the World Baseball Classic?

"Better get down, buddy!" Jeter yelled playfully at his New York Yankees teammate on Wednesday, one day before they turn in their pinstripes and head to their national teams.

Jeter will put on the red, white and blue for the U.S. team, while Williams will play for Puerto Rico. They'll be among 150 or so major leaguers suiting up in the 16-nation tournament, which begins today in Tokyo, when South Korea plays Taiwan and Japan meets China.

Williams doesn't know whether he'd barrel into Jeter in the late innings.

"I'll have to use a lot of caution," Williams said. "Hopefully, the situation will not come."

It's hard to forecast whether players, still getting back into baseball shape, will treat these like spring training games, postseason pressure-cookers or something in between.

Yet it sure will be neat to see Roger Clemens pitching for the United States, Ichiro Suzuki hitting for Japan and David Ortiz slugging for the Dominican Republic.

The United States, the Dominicans and the Puerto Ricans figure to be among the top teams in the tournament along with Japan, Venezuela and Cuba, the defending Olympic champion. It's hard to see how teams such as Italy, the Netherlands, China and South Africa can compete.

Gene Orza, the chief operating officer of the players' association, persuaded Mike Piazza to play for Italy. He tried to get Mike Mussina, too.

"I told him I'm not Italian and nobody in my family is Italian," Mussina said.

The tournament starts with Group A, which runs from today through Sunday at the Tokyo Dome. Other players report to their national teams Friday, and the three other groups start play Tuesday after a bunch of exhibition games.

Group B, based in Phoenix and Scottsdale, Ariz., includes the United States, Canada, Mexico and South Africa. Group C is in San Juan and has Puerto Rico, Cuba, Panama and the Netherlands. Group D games are at Kissimmee, Fla., and involve the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Australia and Italy.

After each team plays three games, the top two teams in each group advance to second-round groups in Anaheim, Calif., and San Juan. The semifinals on March 18 and the final on March 20 are in San Diego.

Some players have backed out. Mets closer Billy Wagner and Cleveland pitcher C.C. Sabathia dropped off the U.S. team Wednesday and were replaced by Washington right-hander Gary Majewski and Yankees left-hander Al Leiter.

Boston's Manny Ramirez, who just got to spring training Wednesday, quit the Dominican team as did Angels star Vladimir Guerrero, who cited the death of his three cousins last weekend in a car accident.

"If a player is on the fence, whether he's going to make a team or not, I would prefer he stays," said Los Angeles Dodgers manager Grady Little, who is losing outfielder Jose Cruz Jr. to the Puerto Rican team.

Yankees center field Johnny Damon, a member of the U.S. team, predicted play would be close to postseason intensity.

"The last thing we want to do is embarrass our country," he said.

Ortiz, citing the pitch limits that will be used, predicts a lower level of play.

"I see it like pretty much spring training games," he said. "I don't think any one of the players is ready to play a full game yet, so it's going to be interesting."

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