Thursday, February 28, 2013

WBC 2013--Syndicate Reloaded

Salutations Syndicate Members,

WBC 2013We’ve a snarky e-mail that necessitates a response:

Reader: Soccer not boring enough for you? You have to throw baseball in the mix? Who are you, some sort of Hipster King of all things uninteresting?

I….er….have a equally stinging response to such a…er…hard-hitting riff. I…er…offer in retort….mmmm…“dammit…..fuck you!”.

Hehehe. You composed something an excellent riff, like a true syndicate member. I’m all smiles. You’ve made me very happy. Way to do me proud! Just remember never to lump me in with the hipsters again. Seriously. That’s below the belt. Mind your choice of words. Call me a hipster again and I’ll keep your photo face up next time I’m getting intimate with your mother. I turn that photo frame down out of respect for you. Don’t make the Vice irate.

Okay. Let’s address the underlying point. It happens to be a legitimate one. Is it fair to classify baseball a “sport”? Eh….no, not exactly. The “game” features a great deal of standing around, an even greater deal of sitting down, and an even greater deal of eating/chewing/spitting/testicle scratching. Baseball remains the game of the patient technician. It’s possible to rightly proclaim to be a first-rate “Baller” whilst also being a drunk, a pack-a-day smoker, an overweight slob, or some combination of those three. Distinguished author and metaphysical genius John Kruk put it best when he uttered the immortal words, “I a’int an athlete, Lady….I’m a ballplayer”.

If you fancy yourself a true American, stay true to your heritage call the game what it is. Though it may not technically fit the description of a “Sport”, it’s a “Pastime”. It’s a glorious way to “pass the time.” It’s our National Pastime. If you can’t at the very least appreciate what our homegrown game has to offer…you’re nothing more than a filthy communist. Follow the NFL if you must. It’s socialist in that it encourages revenue sharing and parity. On an even more cutting note, there’s more action in a typical nine innings than in four hours of that American Football farce. Be a true American.

Enough of the tongue-in-cheek ribbing. Your friendly bookie’s love affair with baseball began when he was but a barely cognizant child capable only of some simple arithmetic. To follow a team meant collecting as many baseball cards as one could get one’s hands on, working out Batting Averages, E.R.A.s, projected season-long stats, and Slugging Percentages before they appeared in the box-score the next day. It also meant huddling close to the radio with pen and score-sheet in hand every single night throughout an endless summer, eagerly anticipating how each At-Bat would alter the trends one had discerned.

Such a quintessential American upbringing may no longer exist. Too many other entertainment options exist in this fast-paced world. Kids no longer have to deal with the challenge of growing up bored and inventing ways to amuse themselves. That doesn’t mean that baseball must fade away entirely. I maintain that, for an adult, nothing beats stretching out underneath the summer sun, slowly sipping an ice-cold beer, munching on a stadium hotdog, and leisurely scribbling down a careful score that comes nowhere close to the sheer beauty of the sightlines. Nothing like taking in a ballgame on a Summer’s Eve. I mean….blowjobs are nice too, but consider my sincere portrait for a moment or two.

Yes…for the “nth” time I’m forced to concede that I’m not much of a salesman. Irrespective of my tendency to ramble, know that I’m not the only one for whom baseball conjures up unexplainable feelings of earnest joy. I wasn’t the only kid camping outside Alex Box Stadium eager to see my LSU Tigers. I’m far from the only kid rush toward the radio dial in order to hear the soothing voice of Harry Kalas announce the starting lineups. Those two examples refer to Baton Rouge and Phillytown respectively. Not only were there thousands of other kids engaging in the same activities in those two towns, hundreds of thousands went through the same rituals in cities and hamlets all across America. As you’ll see, increasing numbers of kids are doing so all across the globe.

Perhaps your typical American middle-class youngster cannot help but be preoccupied with his/her smart phone, a plethora of social media sites, and the 600 plus channels beamed straight into the living room. Elsewhere, the bliss of following a collection of players and the stats associated with them might still stimulate a voracious young mind. In that spirit, I’m pleased to dedicate this latest highly unorthodox chapter of the syndicate to patient fans on every corner of the planet. As always, let’s have some fun…and learn a thing or two together.  

Sixteen countries compete. Off we go.       

Group A-- Fukuoka, Japan

Japan (Overall Winning Odds 2-1)

SHOURYUKEN! The two-time defending champs return, once again hoping that this tournament’s ferociously goofy structure will save them. Prospects for a three-peat appear about as dim as prospects for a long-awaited sequel to 1992’s Tom Selleck vehicle “Mr. Baseball”. For starters, the Japs will have to do without their talismanic captain and colorful beating heart, Ichiro Suzuki. The first Japanese position player to catch on in America twice picked up the Dragons and carried them all the way to glory twice, but the 39-year-old outfielder presently faces some professional adversity as a free agent and must focus on securing a professional contract for the upcoming season. 

Another Free Agent, hard throwing right-handed hurler Hiroki Kuroda, has arrived at a similar decision. Rangers pitcher Yu Darvish and Brewers outfielder Norichika Aoki will also sit this one out. Notable names like the legendary Hideki Matsui and the rehabbing Daisuke Matzukaza were never even broached.

The leaves….well….not a damn player you can expect to recognize quite frankly. Former Houston Astros, New York Mets, and Colorado Rockies flop Kaz Matsui pops up again. Since the stros' gave him his outright release in 2010, Kaz has quietly strung together some successful season at second base for the Rakuten Golden Eagles.

Aside from him, the entire roster is comprised of the best players from the Nippon League. That it itself actually speaks to the team’s overall strength. Clubs such as the Yomiuri Giants, the Hanshin Tigers, the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, the Seibu Lions, and the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters can easily beat most MLB Clubs on any given day. Perhaps one day we’ll have the privilege to observe a true “Club World Series”. This bookie would gladly take Yomiuri over the current incarnation of his beloved Phillies.

Contrary to the common prevailing logic, the game of baseball was NOT a post-World-War II American export. The Japs have been playing organized ball since well before the turn of the 20th century. American imperialists brought the game to the shores of the Isle shortly after the end of the American Civil War. The game proved to be a smash hit almost immediately. The Japs fell in love with a sport in which each player was delegated a specific role. The inherent Zen like values of personal discipline, patience, focus, deep concentration, and meditation led to the development of the first teams under the auspices of none other than the local Samurai. Yes, THOSE samurai motherfucker.

Of course, it also didn’t hurt that baseball isn’t exactly a physically demanding “sport”. Players may remain active well into their fifties. A culturally compatible respect for seniority sealed the deal. Arigato, Dragons. Good luck.

China (Overall Winning Odds 12-1)

The Land of Confucius embraced the game of baseball even earlier than the Japs. Organized ball was being played in Shanghai a full decade before the Japanese constructed their first diamond. For a brief interval in the 1860s, the Chinese had more active amateur teams than the Americans. As was the case in across the East China Sea, the leisurely game of the patient technician took root in an Eastern Society that heralded the values of carefully circumscribed tasks, rapt focus, flawless execution, and team identity.

One might even envision Confucius himself as a contemplative right fielder. He pensively sits in the lotus position, pausing only intermittently to scratch his scrotum and take a puff of opium. He descends ever deeper into a ruminative trace, musing over the precise trajectory of the fly ball that the left-handed hitter at the plate will pull in his direction. Forty minutes later, the crack of the bat summons him out of his transfixing catatonia. He calmly rises from the pitch, hitching his eyes on the ball as it reaches the apex of its parabola. With a supple flick of the wrist he draws down his shades and takes measured steps towards the shadow of the descending body. At the last possible moment he thrusts up his glove to ensnare the orb. Following that he rifles the ball toward home in plenty of time to catch the runner tagging up at third.  Strike up the pan flute.

The Chinese might have matured into a legitimate global baseball powerhouse had Mao Zedong not deemed the game as distasteful as foot binding after finally assuming the reigns of power in the 1950s. Mao did rescind his ban, along with most everything else, during the Cultural Revolution, but the game never quite made the comeback that say…Deng Xiaoping enjoyed. Instead, the Real Reds didn’t form a serious domestic league until 2002…and must seek other ways to compete with Japan.

Established American managers have always led the Chinese. At one point, current Mets manager Terry Collins took the con. Former Washington Nationals bench coach has the responsibility this go-around. He’s joined by 1986 World Series MVP Bruce Hurst of the Boston Red Sox, as well as none other than the legendary Art Howe. Plenty of star-power in the dugout. We should see a respectable performance from the “Amasians”, just as we did in 2006 and 2009.  

Cuba (Overall Winning Odds – Straight Up)

Gentlemen, I give you the number one ranked country, the odds-on favorite, and the most successful country in the history of the game. Most trace the origins of the game of baseball to the American Soldiery and a bastardized form of English Cricket that took hold sometime in the 1850s. If we are to assume that there was indeed a moment of inception at which the rules of the game finally crystallized and America gave birth to its own distinct “sport”, we must admit that the game migrated to Cuba no more than five minutes later.

Baseball took root in Cuba without a second’s delay. For over 150 years, no other international sporting phenomenon has come close to dislodging it. The Spanish attempted to institute bullfighting. No one gave a shit. Soccer arrived as a cheaper alternative in a perpetually poverty-stricken nation. It required less expensive gear, was easier to play, and afforded those less than enthusiastic in the Revolution a “protest sport” in which to participate. No matter. Baseball remained Numero Uno.

To be sure, your typical Cuban remains interested in a boxing match or a cockfight. Still, tell them there’s nine innings to be watched they’ll be plenty of empty seats ringside. Irrespective how brutal the Castros have been in manipulating the game for political purposes over the past sixty years, our Caribbean cousins just can’t say no. For that matter, neither could the players. For decades, socialist policies didn’t allow for a “professional league” so to speak. The domestic league players remained uncompensated, sustaining a living with off-season factory jobs that pay a paltry 3,000 Pesos. In spite of this, fewer than five percent of the national players defected in the forty-plus years the policy was in place.

The ultimate undoing of these policies is a fascinating story directly related to the evolution of the World Baseball Classis itself. As we prepared to launch the inaugural tournament in 2006, codified U.S. Law prevent the MLB Commissioner’s Office from allowing the Cuban national team to partake. The U.S. Trade Embargo precluded the furnishing of a license for the Cuban team to play on U.S. Soil After a well-organized cohort of American Sports Journalists expressed outrage at this, the Commissioner, the League, and the Sports Writers’ Association intensely lobbied to U.S. Government to grant an exception. Also applying pressure were the International Baseball Federation (IBAF), who threatened to pull their sanction from the tournament and the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which courageously told the U.S. Congress that it had to drop this madness or risk never having the right to host the Olympics ever again.

Such pressure paid off and everyone thankfully came to their senses. Enter the 2006 Cuban squad, a 23-man roster of young amateurs, many who had never left the island before. All players in the 2006 World Baseball Classic received complimentary I-pods (at that time a fairly novel technological advance). The Cuban players, essentially still living in 1955, famously had no idea what to do them and reportedly used them for batting practice. This team of amateur athletes punched all the way through to the finals, suffering an improbable defeat to the Japanese. Attached propaganda or no, they returned to their country heroes….also, just in time for the four o’clock shift at the textile mill.

Shortly after this miraculous run, Fidel slipped on the red tracksuit he’s been wearing for the past six years on a ceded power to Raul. Lost amidst the news concerning the slow loosening of property restrictions and entrepreneurial reforms, Raul allowed a few ringers to sneak into the 2009 squad. The current team features no fewer than seven players with foreign experience. Naturally, the 18 high-profile Cubans who defected to reap fat contracts in the U.S. Major Leagues remain persona non grata. Moreover, all ringers with foreign experience have been carefully placed in industrial jobs and their images meticulously managed. The regime must continue to keep up appearances in any event. That means one should take the words of those who proudly proclaim that they can cat food for the glory of the revolution with a grain of salt. The World Baseball Classic now affords the Cubans another significant stage. There’s some secret wealth on this team. It’s hybrid of homegrown farm boys and seasoned pros. We shall definitely live to see a fully integrated Cuban team at some point. For now, don’t assume that Cuba isn’t ALREADY inexorably headed in that direction.   

Brazil (Overall Winning Odds 10-1)

Former owner of the Texas Rangers, and current nude self-portrait painting ex-President George W. Bush, once infamously conceded that he had no idea there were blacks in Brazil. Ostensibly, had he known a little more about the world he was placed in charge of leading, he might have been a better President.

Former owner of the Little League Phillies Fantasy Baseball Club and current nude typing enthusiast Vice now concedes that he had no idea there was baseball in Brazil. Ostensibly, had he known a little more about the “sport” he was covering, he might be a better writer?

Brazil? Who the sura-del-bundaing fuck plays baseball in Brazil? That wasn’t even in that god-awful Albert Brooks movie! We did not see Brazil in 2006 and 2009, for the simple reason that there was no qualifying round, 16 teams were pre-selected, and the Brazilian team featured a goat at third base.

Everything changed when the IBAF invited the Samba Nine to participate. The Brazilian Baseball Federation hired none other than Cincinnati hall of fame shortstop Barry Larkin to sculpt a credible club. He made a mockery out of those minimalist expectations, upsetting two Latin American countries with well-established baseball traditions: Panama and Columbia. Twice Larkin’s lads eked out one run victories against the Panamanians. Additionally, they massacred Columbia in a 7-1 rout that made no sense whatsoever.

Okay…perhaps it makes a little sense. Granted, ten of the players on the Brazilian roster are currently signed to major league contracts. However, all of them play on the lowest levels of the farm systems. Until last year, no Brazilian had ever made it to the show. That changed when utility infielder earned an early season call-up to the Bigs last year.

One must admit that baseball looks about ready to break in the football mad nation. Japanese immigrants introduced baseball to Brazil in the 1920s. Shut out of the countries like Australia, South Africa, and the States due to racist immigration policies, hundreds of thousands of Japanese emigrated to Brazil, mostly to earn cash as coffee plantation laborers. Today, an estimated 1.5 million Brazilians are of Japanese decent. It remains less than one percent of the population, yet still significant enough to constitute the largest Japanese population outside Japan.

Accordingly the, Brazilian baseball team is roughly half Latin and half Nippon. That’s a promising mixture! Over seventy-five percent of their players play in the top two baseball nations in the world. True, with most of them working their way up through the American minors and Japanese industrial league, they cannot accurately be described as ready for primetime just yet. Nevertheless, we’ve plenty to behold down the road. The Japanese and Brazilians have the potential to concoct wonderful things when they fuse….

“Things” like Sabrina Sato:

…..or Danielle Suzuki

Yeah….those girls need to come sit on my face.

Group B---Taichung, Taiwan

South Korea (Overall Winning odds 2-1)

Hell Yes, the Koreans play baseball!! They do it “Gangam Style”. Who can forget Chan Ho Park, Hee-Seop Choi, Byung-Hyun Kim, Shin Soo-Choo? Hmmm….evidently most major league clubs. Of all those Korean dynamos, only Soo-Choo still plays in the states, and his new manager in Cincinnati won’t allow him to join us.

By all accounts MLB currently experiences a Korean lull. That by no means suggests that this team isn’t capable of contending for the title. Behind the States and Japan, South Korea boasts perhaps the third most competitive league in the world. While the Japanese Nippon League operates under the designation of “AAAA Ball”, Korea’s Championship League lies only a notch behind. One might liken in to “AAA ½ Ball”. Much like with the Japanese powerhouses, this bookie would be tempted to pick the Samsung Lions, Kia Tigers, Nexen Heroes, or Lotte Giants were they squaring off against a lowly MLB Team like the Royals, Mets, or Orioles.

Differentiating the Koreans from their Jap brethren across the way, all Korean teams are backed by the mighty Chaebol. Whereas the Japanese use their company teams for developmental purposes in the “Industrial League”, the Korean Championship and it’s developmental farm counterpart “The Korean Futures League” are all backed by mighty corporate entities. LG, Samsung, Doosan, Nexen, Kia, SK, and NC. Yes, you stereotypical jackasses, Hyundai once had a team too. They were called the “Unicorns” Some lucky syndicate members will soon take pride in owning that awesome jersey.

Bottom Line: The teams are incredibly lucrative. The sport is immensely popular. The South Koreans made it all the way to the final of the 2009 competition and can quite foreseeably capture the title this go-around. Players to watch include blazing southpaw Jang Won-Sam of the champion Samsung Lions. Yoon Suk-Min of the Kia Tigers purportedly has a 98-m.p.h fastball. Seung-Jun Song of the Lotte Giants supposedly has a wicked cutter.

Beyond a strong rotation, the lineup features plenty of guys with explosive power. Lee Dae-Ho smashed his way up to the Orix Buffaloes of the Nippon League with a world record nine home runs in nine straight games for the Lotte Giants. Right fielder Lee Jin-Young has driven in over 100 runs most every year of his illustrious career. Ditto Hanwha Eagles First Baseman Kim Tae-Kyun. Have I mentioned that ALL of these guys are career .300 hitters?

The Koreans appear perfectly poised to exact their revenge for the extra inning finals defeat four years ago. This bookie is preferred to confer upon them the honor of the “Connoisseur’s fashionable pick”.

Netherlands (Overall Winning Odds 5-1)

Ahem. Well, the Dutch are here. Quick everyone! Turn out the lights and hit the floor! What triple-vowel-stacking fuck are the goofy Germans doing here? Allow me a moment or two to regain my composure and I’ll tell you. Fucking Dutch……

In 1911, a worthless English Professor took a sabbatical in America. In lieu of getting any research done, he spent most of his time goofing off and drinking heavily with baseball enthusiasts. Upon returning, he immersed himself in a project almost as worthless as this blog: translating the rules of baseball into Dutch. Within two years he had founded a club: Quick Amsterdam. Within a decade, an actual professional four-team league sprung up. So goes the legend.

Ajax branched off into baseball. Another notable football club (Blue-White) also followed suit. The northern municipality of “Haarlem” got in on the act. Thus far, you’re welcome to conclude that this narrative is about as ridiculous as this tiny little kingdom itself. Despite numerous attempts by visiting American military and missionary teams to utterly humiliate them, the Dutch kept plugging along.

In Marshall Plan Europe, Germany, Italy, France, England, Belgium, and the Netherlands all found themselves recipients of hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of baseball equipment. Insanely enough, the cultural exchange actually worked in every country except France.

It worked in Italy, where baseball somehow remains popular in certain communities. It worked in England, where there’s actually a counter-counter of baseball playing punks. It worked in Germany, which has four tiers to its “Baseball Bundesliga”. Your friendly bookie even trained with the Karlsruhe Cougars of the Third German Baseball Bundesliga. None of the players even spoke English. They were 100 percent Kraut. It worked in Belgium, where there really was never terribly too much to do other than find ways to piss the Dutch off. The Belgians formed a national team and proceeded to take on the Dutch every year in a regional Derby. The French took one look at the leather mitts and rawhide-stitched balls, concluded that they had evil smells about them, and returned to guzzling cat’s piss wine and gorging themselves on steak tartar over the course of their five-hour-long lunch break. That was to be expected. Can't win them all.   

The Dutch gratefully accepted their new bats and began erecting batting cages. To this day one can still find a lone batting cage in many Dutch Amusement Parks. Over the course of the next sixty years, the “Kingdom of the Nether Regions” captured 20 of the 32 European Baseball Championships. Yes, that tournament exists. No, I’ll never cover it. There’s the subtle joy of writing about sports that some people may falsely consider obscure, then there’s the feeling of actually writing about obscure sports. There’s also the feeling associated with shaving one’s own head with a cheese greater. I think I’d prefer the latter to the former.

So now then. The Hollanders upset the Cubans in 2011 to capture the IBAF World Cup of Baseball. You read that correctly. As of this writing, the title of World Baseball Champion belongs to the Europeans…….somehow. Here we encounter yet another reason why the World Baseball Classic needs to take off PRONTO! The IBAF World Cup of Baseball is a fucking joke! I refuse to accept that the goddamn Dutch are the Master of the Baseball Universe. This cannot be! No, no, no, no!!

Hard as it may to fathom, the Dutch are actually stacked with talent. NINE of their players currently play in the American minor leagues….and I a’int finished. THREE of their players are currently STARTING in the major leagues. Anyone familiar with Washington Nationals right fielder Roger Bernadina? He’s from the Dutch Antilles and playing for Holland in this tournament. How about new Atlanta Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons? He’s from Curaçao, which makes him Dutch. How about Shairon Martis of the Minnesota Twins’ mound? He’s from the Dutch Antilles…even pitched a no-hitter against Panama in the 2006 Classic.

I still a’int finished. Remember Andruw Jones of the Atlanta Braves and New York Yankees? We’ve got another one from Curaçao. Dutch, Dutch, Dutch. DUTCH! So now you see. In spite of the quixotic narrative involving a bumbling professor and an indomitable spirit….it all comes down to the goddamn colonies. Christ do I ever hope the Orange suffer the same fate as their football counterparts in last Summer’s Euros. Be gone with ye. 

Australia (Overall Winning Odds 11-1)

American prospectors + Victorian Era Gold Rush + Cricket Off season = Baseball in Australia. So they tell us. Cricket was widely played in the old British Penal Colony from the very beginning. Yet what was a cricketer to do as the winter months settled in on the Southern hemisphere? Some scraggly U.S. Gold Miners evidently had the answer after the 1849 California Gold Rush petered out and some of the more enterprising individuals hopped a boat. Baseball rapidly became the official “off season sport”. Australian baseball clubs were already touring the U.S. before the advent of the 20th Century. Most notably, a “mitt-less” Aussie squad toured the U.S. and England in 1897-98. Why did they not wear gloves? Because they were Aussies, dammit. No padding for us real men!

The tradition of Baseball as a Winter Sport continued until the 1960s, when baseball hot spots such as New South Wales carved out a full summer season for professionals who exclusively played what they then called “Basecube”. A full national league would have to wait until 1989, when MLB invested a hefty chunk of change to form a new “Winter Ball” developmental league. In spite of the heavy financial stakes put up by us Yanks, the league lasted all of a decade before abysmal finances forced it to fold. Eleven years after that, a revamped concept got its turn. The “New Australian Baseball League” debuted in 2010, and has ventured nowhere near the black.

Baseball may never prove a lucrative industry down under, but one cannot ignore some resonant stats. Namely, 62 Aussies play under contracts with U.S. Professional Teams. Nine of those are firmly in the show. The most familiar names are Travis Blackley and Grant Balfour of Billy Beane’s Oakland A’s. You may recall that the pair was instrumental in engineering the Athletics’ improbable rise back to the top of the division.

They won’t be joining us. Billy Beane, for all his love of global sports, has elected to be a bitch a forbid them. We also won’t see Peter Moylan, Josh Spence, or Richard Thompson. In their stead, eleven minor leaguers will vie for some semblance of pride. Without the top rate talent, this team is headed nowhere. The same cannot be said for continentals in the major leagues.

Chinese Taipei (Overall Winning Odds--Straight Up)

Who’s this, you ask? Why it’s none other than the “People’s Republic of Taiwan”. Why can’t we simply call it that? Er….look it’s complicated. Back in 2006, the squad registered as “Taiwan” under the banner of the R.O.C. (“Republic of China”) Flag. This pissed the P.R.C. (“Peoples Republic of China”) off something fierce. Even with Ma Ying-jeou and the Unionists in power, Taiwan maintains its independence under the precarious “1992 Consensus”, where in the powerful P.R.C. accepts temporary de-facto independence for Kai-shek’s old stomping ground on the condition that a “final solution” shall eventually be forthcoming.

Germans such as this bookie may find any plan termed the “final solution” as distasteful, but some sort of face saving compromise between these two autonomous states remains highly desirable. The island once known as Formosa is armed to the teeth with U.S. munitions. Moreover, should China ever incur upon Taiwanese sovereignty, even ever so slightly, the U.S. is legally obligated under international treaty to initiate a nuclear war that will surely eradicate at least one-sixth of the planet’s population. Lovely. You guys want to call them “Chinese Taipei”? Okay. Cool. No big deal. Let’s all calm down and leave it be for now. Play ball!

The Taiwanese…er…excuse me there… “Taipei Islanders” boast enough talent to take home the ultimate prize. Their underachieving performances in 2006 and 2009 were perplexing to say the least. This time they’re bringing along red-hot Cubs Prospect Yao Lin-Wang, Orioles starter Wei Yin-Chang, Nationals future everyday leftfielder Chien Ming-Chang, and the two jewels of the Astros farm system: Chia Jen-Lo, and Che Hsuan Lin.

The Taiwanese love their baseball, dating all the way back to the days that it was the Japanese insisting that they lorded over the territory. Let the Chinese insist they be called whatever the Politburo insists upon…they’ll still go deeper in this tournament.

Group C-- San Juan, Puerto Rico

Venezuela (Overall Winning Odds—Straight Up)

U.S. teams have been sending their players to play Winter Ball in Venezuela since the 1940s. Reciprocally, the Caribbean Coast country has been producing major leaguers since the 1930s. How important is baseball to Venezuelans? Just consider the fact that Chavez/Maduro supporters and Caprilles/Anti-Bolivarian factions currently don distinct baseball caps to in order to represent their allegiances during the present constitutional crisis.

The Venezuelans have literally supplied U.S. fans with hundreds of major leaguers over the past eighty some odd years. To list them all is beyond the scope of this piece of fluff. Suffice to say, this Phillies Phan remains especially grateful for Bobby Abreu, Manny Trillo, Tomas Perez, Carlos Silva, Francisco Rodriguez, Yoel Hernandez, Danny Sandoval and Freddy Galvis.

Oh fuck it. In spite of the fact that it may eat up too much time, I’ll try and list some star Venezuelans that made significant contributions to MLB. Off the top of my head (in no particular order):

1) Jose Herrera
2) Miguel Cabrera
3) Bo Diaz
4) Luis Salazar
5) Ugeth Urbina (even if he did turn out to be a murderous prick)
6) Tony Castillo
7) Carlos Garcia
8) Luis Sojo
9) Omar Vizquel
10) Ozzie Guillen!!!
11) Carlos Zambrano
12) Omar Infante
13) Felix Hernandez
14) Carlos Gonzalez
15) Pablo Sandoval

….and that’s about all I’ve got. Tip of a solitary snowflake one seriously ponderous motherfucking iceberg. This year the Venezuelans have put together a pitching rotation that includes Henderson Alvarez of the Miami Marlins, Deolis Guerra of the Minnesota Twins, Ceasar Jiminez of my beloved Phillies, Alex Torres of the Tampa Bay Rays, and Juan Rincon of whoever proves to be smart enough to sign him. Pablo Sandoval, Elvis Andrus, Carlos Gonzalez, Martin Prado, Omar Infante, Miguel Montero, and Mario Lisson are on hand to contribute a legitimate offensive threat. Beware, everyone. We’ve got ourselves a Dark Horse.

Puerto Rico (Overall Winning Odds 2-1)

Cool. It’s the 51st State! Let's get it over with, Americans. Put Jose Feliciano on the dime and add another star to the flag. Wasn’t it enough that the Puerto Ricans defeated the states 11-1 in the 2009 World Baseball Classic? Make them part of the country lest we risk suffering such humiliation again! As one might expect, baseball is THE sport in Puerto Rico. As sure every conscientious observer always knew that Ricky Martin was gay, as sure as every straight man knew that there were no better collection of gorgeous asses to be found than at a Puerto Rican Day Parade, every baseball fan has always known that Puerto Ricans make the best ballplayers.

Roberto Clemente. I need not even type another name. Roberto FUCKING Clemente! Possibly the GREATEST ballplayer of all time! Rest in peace, Roberto. How about the Alomar brothers? Pudge Rodriguez? Juan Gonzalez? Edgar Martinez? Bernie Williams? Luis Aguayo? Luis Arroyo? Carlos Baerga? Carlos Beltran? Hector Cruz? Jose Cruz? Jose Cruz Jr.? Yadier Molina? Hector Ortiz? J.C. Romero? Reuben Sierra? Ramon Vasquez? Jose Guzman.

Alright. Enough already. The roster of players looking to embarrass the USA this year includes pitchers Hiram Burgos of the Milwaukee Brewers, Fernando Cabrera of the L.A.A., Jose De La Torre of the Red Sox system, and Nelson Figueroa of the Diamondbacks. Jose and Yadier Molina are coming along too. Ditto Carlos Beltran, Alex Rios, Andres Torres, Andy Gonzalez and Carlos Riveria. Fortune permitting, we’ll see a U.S. vs. Puerto Rico showdown or two in the pool stages.

Dominican Republic (Overall Winning Odds 3-1)

Things are simply better on the Eastern half of Hispaniola. Oh, if only the denizens of Haiti had baseball to fall back on. Currently, over 100 Dominican players are signed to major league contracts. Mind you, a critical adverb worth emphasizing there is “CURRENTLY”. The Dominicans have furnished over 600 major leaguers in the past sixty years alone. Even non-baseball fans will surely recognize superstars like Sammy Sosa, Albert Pujols, David “Big Papi” Ortiz, Tony Pena, Vladimir Guerrero, Robinson Tejeda, Rafael Furcal, Juan Uribe, Mel Rojas, Manny Castillo, Andujar Cedeno Moises Alou, Tony Bautista, Juan Encarnacion, Freddy Guzman, Roberto Duran, Juan Samuel, Pedro Martinez, Ramon Martinez, Manny Martinez, A-Rod (Alex Rodriguez), Pedro Borbon, Rafael Belliard, Wilson Valdez, Jose Mesa, Manny Ramierez, Placido Polanco, and Ruben Mateo.

Have I forgotten someone? Probably. We’ve no choice but to let it go and focus on who’s coming to our tournament. Here’s who’s coming to dinner:

1) Santiago Casilla, P (San Francisco Giants)

Yes, he’s still alive…and he’s coming.

2) Carlos Santana, C (Cleveland Indians)

Oye como va.

3) Jose Reyes, 2B (Toronto Blue Jays)

Where the hell has he been hiding? Canada you say?

4) Nelson Cruz, RF (Texas Rangers)

Where the hell has HE been hiding? In Rick Perry’s sandbox you say?

5) Miguel Tejada, SS (Kansas City Royals)

Yes, he’s still alive. Where has he been hiding? Kansas City, of course. The Major League City where dreams go to die.

6) Juan Cedeno, P (New York Yankees)

The Yanks snatched him out of the Korean League, for good reason.

7) Octavio Dotel, P (Detroit Tigers)

What sweep? This is far more important.

This should prove fun. All the way until they meet the USA.

Spain (Overall Winning Odds 13-1)

Now, now. Everyone settle down. The Spaniards have every right to be here. They crushed the Israelis in the qualifying rounds! Beating Jews a’int easy! Think of Sandy Koufax! This wasn’t the Inquisition! They actually had to work to best these Jews!

Okay….let’s see if we can’t slay the elephant in the room. Today’s “Big Question” is:

“What the inimputable fuck is Spain doing with a baseball team?”
Answer: It was none other than the Spanish aristocracy that fled Cuba after independence! They brought the game back with them. Though the sport barely survived the Franco dictatorship, the Spanish currently maintain a three-tier professional relegation league. There’s even a “Copa del Ray de Beisbol”. There’s even a rivalry Derby between “Beisbol Barcelona” and “Piratas Madrid”

I know none of this makes any sense and you’re prepared to hang me for hyperbole. All the condemned man can say in his defense is that 12 of the players on the Spanish National Team currently play professional baseball in the United States. That’s not to say that they all play for major league clubs. Many receive checks from unaffiliated farm teams like the South Maryland Blue Crabs or the Lincoln Saltdogs. Still, Alesandro Sanchez aims to be the next starting shortstop for the Atlanta Braves. Pitcher Ricardo Castillo has been making waves in the St. Louis Cardinal’s farm system. Rhiner Cruz might someday start for the Astros. Jesus Merchan, Gabe Suarez, and Adrian Nieto are one step away from the show. Engel Beltre should make the cut for the Texas Rangers this year.

Who knew? Not this bookie. Regardless, we must accept the fact that the Spaniards are present. 

Group D—Scottsdale and Phoenix Arizona

USA (Overall Winning Odds—Straight Up)

No sense in wasting any time. Let’s cut straight to the chase: Does the country that invented the “sport” have any realistic chance of capturing the title? The U.S. entered Round Two of the 2006 competition in high spirits, edging out eventual champions Japan in a dramatic 4-3 victory. Less than 24 hours later, however, they proved themselves nothing if not spent. The South Koreans built an insurmountable lead, and the American “Dream Team” fell 3-7 in a critical match. Uncle Sam was afforded one final chance at redemption, but could muster nothing more than a single solitary run against an already eliminated Mexican side.

In 2009 the Americans were lucky to advance out of the group following a Venezuelan thrashing. After enduring an 11-1 thrashing at the hands of Puerto Rico, they recovered nicely to best the Netherlands and exact revenge on their Virgin Island miniatures. Still, they couldn’t best the Venezuelans in the rematch. For the second consecutive (and second only year) the founders of the game couldn’t even make it to the Semi-finals.

These teams brought nothing short of “the cream of the crop.” Roger Clemens, Al Leiter, Brad Lidge, Jake Leavy, Scott Shields, Huston Street, Dontrelle Willis, Mike Timlin, Jason Varitek, Derek Jeter, Chipper Jones, LaTroy Hawkins, Derek Lee, Dustin Pedroia, Alex Rodriguez, Matt Lindstrom, Johnny Damon, Adam Dunn, Chase Utley, Curtis Granderson, David Wright, Mark Teixera, Matt Holiday, Ken Griffey Jr., Evan Longoria, Roy Oswalt, Ryan Braun, Kevin Youklis, Jimmy Rollins, and Shane Victorino.

Who do we have this time? Well..for starters we’ve finally put together a decent coaching staff. The 2006 squad was led by Buck Martinez, otherwise known as the cheap Hispanic imitation of Buck Showalter. Davey Johnson took the reigns in 2009. As his 2012 season with the Nationals made evident, the man is long overdue for retirement. This time the U.S. National Team has acquired none other than the maestro of the 1990s Yankees Dynasty. Hell yes. Joe Torre will be calling the shots. Among the staff that will support him, former Phillies Keystone Kid/manager Larry Bowa will be placed in charge of waving players around third. Pseudo-guru Marcel Lachemann will guide the bullpen will the legendary Greg Maddux will groom the starters. Dale Murphy (yes..THAT Dale Murphy) will handle first base. Former Cardinals great Gerald Perry takes charge of hitting while Holy Hill’s Wille Randolph will be the bench coach.

That’s a nice staff! Onwards to the team occupying the field. First the bad news: This pitching staff SUCKS! Jeremy Affeldt has a career E.R.A. over 4.00.  His clutch performances in 2010/2012 notwithstanding, this bookie cannot profess faith in a setup man who can only throw an inconsistent fastball, an average sinker, and a leaky curve. I’m afraid Heath Bell, Steve Cishek, Tim Collins, Luke Gregerson, Chris Perez, Glenn Perkins, and Ryan Vogelsong all deserve a similar assessment. If there’s any hope coming out of the bullpen, perhaps Ross Detwiler can set up while Mitchell Boggs saves. R.A. Dickey can provide long relief if necessary. Too many relievers in this lineup. The best projection for a starting rotation goes:

1) Gio Gonzalez

2) Craig Kimbrel

3) Vinnie Pestano

A three-man-rotation isn’t bad news bay any stretch of the imagination. When I was a kid, a four-man rotation was rare. Now a six-man rotation is the norm. One thing that’s cool about tournament baseball: We have the opportunity to bring back the “Iron Man” Game. Given that these guys have something to prove, reasons to be hopeful abound.

Joe Mauer will be our backstop. Teixera will likely take first. Counterclockwise across the diamond, look for Brandon Phillips at second, Jimmy Rollins at Shortstop, and David Wright at Third. That’s one ridiculously old infield, but it’ll do in a pinch. I’ll project Giancarlo Stanton in Right field, Shane Victorino in Center, and Ryan Braun in Left. Defensively the U.S. is solid. Offensively, we’ve got enough punch on a good day. Will we have enough of those?

No. I’m sorry. There’s simply no way we take the title. It won’t happen. You’re welcome to bet on our beloved country. We’ll win a couple of games by double digits…but we can’t capture the crown. It won’t happen. On a more positive note, an American team is sure to win the World Series. The Toronto Blue Jays aren’t going anywhere. Go USA!

Mexico (Overall Winning Odds 5-1)

Meh. This bunch isn’t a strong a team as you might think. In the opinion of some (i.e. this biased bookie) the last great ballplayer produced by our neighbors south of the border was Rueben Amaro Sr. Sure, the beaners have their own well-established domestic league where fictional characters like Jake Taylor, Steve Nebraska, and Kenny Powers go to sort things out. In spite of the fact that many major league players have earned a bit of spare dough playing for small hamlets they’ve zero chance of pronouncing, the game generally plays sixth fiddle to soccer, cockfighting, boxing, slap-fighting, and singing competitions on Telemundo. As of this year, the number of Mexicans playing under major league contracts has dipped to 16, an all time low.

As for the current collection of players selected…..meh, about the only immediately recognizable name is Dodgers First Baseman Adrian Gonzalez. Pitchers Yovani Gallardo, Marco Estrada, Rodrigo Lopez, and Luis Mendoza might trigger a faint ring of the bell for hobby sabermetricians. The Mexicans traditionally keep games low-scoring via their above average pitching staff. Nevertheless, they’re far worse at producing position players with pop. They remind one a bit of the Japs circa ten years ago. American fans may rest easy with the knowledge that their border rivals pose no significant threat.   

Italy (Overall Wining Odds 7-1)

After crushing the Spicks, the U.S. must turn its attention to thoroughly demolishing these dastardly Dagos. Grrr………greasy Wops. Damn you! Baseball isn’t really on the Italian domestic radar. A small league exists with the help of two teams from San Marino of all godforsaken places. This “country” fields a team comprised of American players of Italian descent. For some unknown reason, American Wops persist in the thinking that their ethnic connection to the most useless race on the planet constitutes a heritage in which to take pride in. I’ve tried to convince the poor bastards otherwise. I’ve done my utmost to point out that being of Italian heritage really amounts to nothing but a source of endless shame. The manifestation of Italian pride remains slightly less tasteful than expressing pride in the thunderous shit one just took. For that’s all Italians truly are: walking turds.

The modern Italian national team emerged in 2006 when none other than a native of “The Spaghetto” itself, Mike Piazza, committed to play for a country with which he had no connection, linguistically or culturally. In the event anyone is curious where exactly “The Spaghetto” is, its official name is Norristown, PA. Oh yes, I did. Inspired by his lead, other pathetic souls searching for a sense of misplaced identity stepped up to play for the land of their oily fathers. This year’s crop includes San Diego meatball Nick Punto, Connecticut’s own Chris Denorfia. Certified Ft. Lauderdale Wop Anthony Rizzo, Philly’s own Mike Costanzo, and Michigan’s Mike Grilli.

Dumb American Wops. Practically every last one of them. May they suffer demoralizing defeat after demoralizing defeat…and forever rot in hell.

Canada (Overall Winning Odds 10-1)

Rounding out this creampuff division, the Canucks are also on hand to serve as an American doormat. Our NAFTA neighbors have actually always been skilled on the diamond. Baseball caught on in Canada around the same time the game caught fire in the States. Hundreds upon hundreds of Canadians (both Anglo and Quebecois) excelled at the game. Notable names include Ferguson Jenkins, Lefty Wilkie Larry Walker, Rheal Cormier, Justin Morneau, Joey Vatto, and Eric Gagne. Don’t let the loss of the Expos fool you. The Canadians enjoy watching their minor league teams, college crews, and semi-pro summer leagues.

What can one say “a-boot” the national team? They’ve been deplorably bad in both previous classics. This year they only qualified after fending off a scrappy German side that just wouldn’t go away. Yes, indeed. It was a dramatic qualifier at the Armin-Wolf Baseball Stadium in Regensburg. The Canadians secured their slot in front of all of TWO THOUSAND rabid German baseball enthusiasts. It was madness. MADNESS, I tell you.

Anyway, the Canadian team remains as boring as the country itself. I could list fifteen major leaguers with familiar names…or we can at long last play ball!