- Tim Kurkjian, MLB reporter
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Imagine a middle of the order of Vladimir Guerrero, Sammy Sosa, Albert Pujols and Manny Ramirez. Imagine Ichiro leading off, followed by the Matsui boys, Kaz and Hideki. Imagine Alex Rodriguez, Nomar Garciaparra and Derek Jeter playing on the same team.
It could happen. Major League Baseball and other entities, are attempting to organize a baseball World Cup, much like soccer's World Cup. The hope is to have 12 to 16 teams in a tournament that ideally would be played during spring training 2005.
The process is progressing, ''but nothing is firm,'' says Sandy Alderson, executive vice president of baseball operations for MLB. Among many issues that need to be finalized is having the World Cup sanctioned by the International Baseball Federation so all parties could be involved.
"It could be great,'' Alderson said. "It would be a nice event for the commencement of the season. It would highlight spring training, and would be a real attention-grabber going into the season.''
Initially, Alderson says, the World Cup would be by invitation only instead of teams playing their way into the tournament. It would, Alderson says, "represent every part of the world,'' which would include teams from, among other countries, Japan.
The rosters, Alderson says, "would not be exclusive to major-league players, but we hope that major-league players would comprise the vast majority of each roster.''
That, of course, will require some creativity. The Players Association would have to be involved on all levels to assure player participation, which certainly will take some negotiating. To take a star player off his team in, say, mid-March and have him play meaningful games before the regular season is a tricky proposition for certain players, agents and teams. In March, some pitchers are just trying to get their arms in shape during relatively insignificant exhibition games. Throwing 100 pitches at full throttle two weeks before a pitcher is used to doing so is asking for a lot in today's culture of baseball.
Still, a baseball World Cup is an exciting idea with great merit. Major League Baseball has indeed become an international game, one that features stars from all over the world. The Latin influence is enormous, nearly as big as the pride those countries take in sending players to the big leagues.
This trend is sure to continue, with more and more players coming from Asia and all across the globe. How good are the Japanese players? What country is producing the best major leaguers? Are American players developing as quickly as those from Latin America?
All those questions could be answered at least partially by a World Cup. The team from the Dominican Republic would be remarkable: Guerrero, Sosa, Pujols, Ramirez, Alfonso Soriano and Miguel Tejada would help the lineup, and Pedro Martinez would pitch Game 1.
The Japanese entry would be terrific, also. We've seen their best, with Ichiro, who has had three straight 200-hit seasons, Hideo Nomo, Kaz Sasaki, Shigetoshi Hasegawa and Hideki Matsui, who was, according to one Yankee, "our MVP'' in 2003. Kaz Matsui is also expected to make an impact with the Mets this season. The Japanese leagues supposedly are of Triple-A caliber, but that was of a few years ago -- now, it appears, it is decidedly better.
Bobby Valentine, who recently signed a five-year deal to manage a second term in Japan, says that "every position player in Japan could make a team in the major leagues.'' And, he says, that a classic utility player in the major leagues "would never start for the Tokyo Giants.''
But could a Japanese national team, or any team, challenge a team from the United States? Imagine that team. C: Mike Piazza. 1B: Todd Helton. 2B: Bret Boone. 3B: Scott Rolen. SS: Alex Rodriguez (although it's unclear which team he would play for. He has Latin roots, but was born and raised in the U.S.). LF: Barry Bonds. CF: Ken Griffey Jr. (healthy, of course, there are several other options if he's not). RF: Gary Sheffield. RHP: Mark Prior. LHP: Randy Johnson. Closer: John Smoltz. Imagine the five-man rotation, the depth of middle relievers and the bench.
It is a fascinating prospect, the best players in the game playing for their respective countries in a tournament that would be played in a time frame -- March -- when players are tired of spring training and anxious to play in a game that counts. These games would count, not for career records, but for their country, which to some, means a whole lot more.
It could be the first step toward someday having a true World Series, where the best team from the United States would play the best from Japan, or somewhere else in the world.
"I don't see any major roadblocks,'' says Alderson.
Alderson says he hopes in the next six to eight weeks, the World Cup plans can be announced so advertisers and networks can get involved.
Ideally, it would be played every four years, and someday, teams would have to play themselves into the tournament. A lot more needs to be done, and cooperation is needed, but the World Cup might very well happen.
A World Cup tourney is targeted for the spring of 2005 and don't be surprised if Team USA isn't the favorite.