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Column: 'Classic' might live up to its billing

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(Eds: Changes to World Baseball Classic in 2nd paragraph. With AP Photos.)By JIM LITKEAP Sports Columnist

With a few notable exceptions, baseball has never really caught on with the rest of the world.

The Olympics has already kissed the sport goodbye and here's why: While the game's international federation claims 120 countries spread over five continents, the number that take it seriously is more like a dozen. And once you leave the Americas behind, there's Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and maybe Australia, and that's it. Instead of getting mad, most U.S. fans have decided to get even by ignoring the World Baseball Classic. That could change this time around.

Granted, most baseball fans on these shores still couldn't tell you how many times the WBC has been played (twice), or who won (Japan, both times), or even how the home team did in either (don't ask).

And if most of them could get only one question about the WBC answered, it would be probably be this: ''How come so many born-and-bred-in-the-USA ballplayers and managers wind up wearing some other nation's colors, like the time former major league manager Mike Hargrove wound up in charge of Italy's national team?'' (Hargrove's answer: ''I know how to spell lasagna.'')

But for all the apathy the WBC inspires on these shores, it's already generated plenty of international intrigue. Round-robin play doesn't begin until March 2 - the championship game is scheduled for March 19 at AT&T Park in San Francisco - but if tournament play turns out to be as cut-throat or even half as entertaining as the run-up has been, shelve those plans to watch spring-training games and set the DVR for the WBC instead.

Just the other day, Taiwan tried to send four of its scouts to South Korea's training camp and they were turned away. Determined to get an advance peak at their long-time rivals - the Koreans handily whipped Taiwan in their two previous WBC encounters - the scouts returned the next day dressed up as umpires-in-training and got through security. Everything went swimmingly until the fourth inning, when the scouts started timing South Korea's pitchers.

''We had our suspicions because there seemed to be too many people in the umpires' room,'' an official for the Korean federation said. ''We ejected them from the stadium.

After an apology from the Taiwanese federation calmed the waters, the Koreans must have assumed smooth sailing was ahead. Wrong.

Turns out the Cuban national team was on a barnstorming tour of South Korea, and just for good measure, it brought along its own bag of baseballs. When officials of pro team the Cubans were scheduled to play looked inside, they didn't like what they saw.

''The ball had thick and wide seams, and it posed injury risks for our pitchers,'' a club official said. ''Then Cuba suggested we both play a Taiwanese ball. That ball also had big seams and we said we didn't want to play it. Finally, Cubans brought out some mysterious ball, and again we told them we couldn't play it.''

The game was canceled - another Cuban missile crisis? - but if nothing else, it sent out the signal that some people outside the United States take the game seriously enough to mess with the rules.

So far, the response to these shenanigans back here has been a collective yawn. Major League Baseball tried to show its seriousness by dispatching current MLB executive and former Yankees manager Joe Torre to run the U.S. team, but he hasn't had much more luck than his predecessors coaxing front-line talent into a ''USA'' shirt. He knows most of the ballplayers are focused on trying to avoid injury and the season ahead, and that the guys who occupy the same clubhouse chair he used to sit in don't want to lose them.

Torre conceded he had the same reaction when he was managing the Yankees in 2006 and started fielding questions about players heading to the inaugural WBC.

''I'm saying, `Oh my goodness, what is this all about?''' he recalled. ''Because they're taking our players away.''

Things haven't gotten much better since. Torre is supposed to get Milwaukee's Ryan Braun, and 10 players from the World Series champion San Francisco Giants, but it's hardly an All-Star team. His best pitcher is arguably Toronto's R.A. Dickey, whose knuckleball might not prove as baffling to guys who - unlike major leaguers - are used to a steady diet of pitches travelling at lower speeds.

Japan beat Cuba to win in 2006 and South Korea in 2009. Japan will be without its best-known major leaguers this time around - Ichiro Suzuki and Yu Darvish opted out - but arrives as the favorite again, at least in Torre's mind.

''The fact they rarely make mistakes,'' is how Torre explained his choice. ''Whatever sport you're looking at it's usually the team that makes the least mistakes that has the most success.''

Of course, trying hard doesn't hurt either, which is why I'm picking South Korea this time around.

---

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.

Tagged: Yankees

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