Big leaguers get into World Cup spirit
An Italian flag is stuck to the locker of Mets ace Johan Santana. An Argentinian jersey adorns the stall of Angels star Hideki Matsui. The Tampa Bay Rays soon will wear their favorite soccer colors on a road trip.
The World Series is one thing. The World Cup is quite another.
Santana pitched in the World Baseball Classic for his native Venezuela. Italy is his club now.
``The previous champions. Always happy when you get a pick like that. It's going to be tough. It's going to be fun to watch,'' Santana said Wednesday. ``I think Spain has a great team. Argentina has a great team and Brazil's always good. And Portugal.''
Baseball has been trying to mirror the intensity and popularity of the World Cup with the WBC, which gives players a chance to play for national pride every four years.
But soccer's tournament, which begins Friday in South Africa and is the world's most watched sporting event, is a chance for big leaguers to bond.
The Mets made their clubhouse more festive this week, placing a patch-sized flag of a World Cup-bound country on the polished-wood cubby door of every participant's locker - 21 players and New York equipment manager Charlie Samuels picked squads, and 32 teams were taken.
``It's entertaining, the whole world watches,'' Santana said. ``It's one of those times where you watch and have some fun. It's good for the world.''
Mets rookie first baseman Ike Davis doesn't know much about soccer. What he does understand is that the orange-and-red flag in his stall means one thing: ``I like my chances,'' he said of having favored Spain.
Reserve infielder Alex Cora, who might be the best soccer player on the Mets, laughed when asked about his team's shot at a title: the United States.
The United States' first opponent is England, and the red cross on a white background flag - the famed Union Jack is for the United Kingdom - belongs to rookie reliever Jenrry Mejia. Henry Blanco has another U.S. opponent, Algeria - green and white with a red star and crescent.
Reliever Ryota Igarashi is the one Mets player who can root for his country and his pool pick. He got Japan.
The Rays do several theme road trips throughout the season, with hockey sweaters beign the most recent one. Next week, they will all don soccer jerseys of their favorite teams on a swing to Atlanta.
The Angels are conducting a pool like the Mets. Instead of flags, they have jerseys hanging in their lockers.
Los Angeles reliever Fernando Rodney has the United States. Pitcher Francisco Rodriguez has 2006 runner-up France. Scot Shields has a bright green Mexico jersey.
``Everybody has a team,'' Shields said. ``I think it's going to be tough for everybody to get a jersey, though. North Korea, I don't think they're selling too many of those.''
Angels infielder Kevin Frandsen's team is a bit remote, too.
``I have Ivory Coast. They don't sell it,'' he said. ``I'm all about USA, but in this thing, I've got Ivory Coast. I'm excited. With all these injuries, you never know what's going to happen.''
AP Baseball Writer Janie McCauley and AP freelance writer Mark Didtler contributed to this report.