16-team event closer to reality

There are plenty of details that need to be ironed out, but expect to see a World Cup of Baseball in 2005.

Originally Published: April 27, 2004
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

So now that that pesky drug-testing issue is out of the way, we can all start lining up for tickets to that long-awaited first World Cup of Baseball next spring, right?

Uh, not so fast. In case no one had noticed, there are still one or two loose ends that have to be ironed out. Oh, nothing major. Just a few minor details like ...

Where they'll play. And when they'll play. And who will televise it. And which countries will be in -- or out. And what the format will be. And who would be eligible to play for which countries. And, oh-by-the-way, even what the name of it will be.

But other than that, this thing is alllllll set.

"You know, it's kind of funny," said Paul Archey, senior vice president of Major League Baseball International, "but after the announcements (of the drug-testing agreement) came out (Monday), I must have had eight or 10 people congratulate me, saying, 'Great. You finally got the World Cup.'

"Well, we didn't get the World Cup. We did get a big issue out of the way. But all that really did was allow us to move forward on the World Cup."

Albert Pujols
Albert Pujols is hitting .369 since the All-Star break.

Without that drug agreement, of course, there wasn't going to be any World Cup. But now that those testing barricades are down, the fact is, baseball isn't merely moving forward on this event. It's roaring down that road on turbo.

It will take a while to figure it all out, if only because there are two billion details to be stitched together. But once they are, here is a rough sketch of what this very cool event could look like, according to a number of baseball sources:

Which countries?
There once was talk of an eight-team tournament. But Bud Selig prefers 16, which makes for a more grandiose, more international event. Barring changes, those 16 teams tentatively figure to break down this way:

From North America: United States, Canada, Mexico.

From Latin America: Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Panama.

From Asia: Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, China.

From Europe: Italy and the Netherlands.

From elsewhere: Australia and South Africa.

Why China, Italy, South Africa and the Netherlands? To ensure that this is a truly global extravaganza and to build the popularity of the sport in those countries.

And will Cuba really be a part of this? That's the hope, obviously. If this is really going to be an event that decides who's the best in the world, you'd want to have the two-time Olympic champions involved. But it's a land of mystery, so you never know.

When will they play?
Final dates haven't been decided -- for TV and logistical reasons. But the plan is to stage the event in the middle two weeks of March.

The timing has always been hotly debated. But in the end, there were only two real options. One was November, after the World Series. The other was March, during spring training.

November presented all kinds of issues: Would players be in shape? Would members of the playoff teams want to take part? Would it seem like an anticlimax in America after the World Series? Would there be enough TV interest, with college and pro football, college and pro basketball, and hockey all raging?

So everyone has settled on a 13-day period in March, when players have been in spring training for a few weeks, everyone is in playing shape and the World Cup could be timed as the ultimate advertisement for the sport and the season ahead.

What's the format?
The idea, tentatively, would be to divide the 16 teams into four pools and start with a round robin. Then eight teams would advance to a second round. And once those teams had played off, the event would culminate in a pulsating final four.

Single elimination. Two semifinal games. One championship game.

Like three Game 7s, back to back to back. Tremendous.

Who would play?
This is a very sticky question, too, of course. What happens, for instance, in the case of someone like Albert Pujols, who was born in the Dominican Republic but moved to America to attend high school and college in Missouri?

And the answer on that is: To be determined.

But the rough plan is to have Olympic rules apply: Country of citizenship would be the first rule of thumb. And in cases of dual citizenship, or dual residency, it would probably be the player's choice. But try to envision the pressures on someone like Pujols to make that fateful decision. Some fun.

Where would they play?
Since most of the players involved already would be in spring training, it's likely the first round -- and possibly the first two -- would be held in Florida and Arizona.

What this is, really, is a great launching pad for the season and a platform we've never had to promote the best players in the world. There is nothing in sports like nation-versus-nation competition.
Paul Archey, senior VP of MLB International, on a possible World Cup of Baseball

The advantages in that, obviously, are A) no frostbite worries, and B) those states would offer a mix of big and small ballparks. You don't need to rent out the BOB for Italy-Netherlands. But Ho Ho Kam Park would work. If it's a U.S.-Dominican game, though, those extra 40,000 seats up the road might come in handy.

When the semifinals and finals arrived, though, there would be two major criteria: 1) lots of seats and 2) no snowouts, please.

Which means the grand finale probably would be held either in a dome (Houston, Seattle, Milwaukee, etc.), in one of the Florida or Arizona big-league venues (Pro Player, Tropicana Field, the BOB) or in California (L.A., Anaheim, San Diego, San Francisco).

We're thinking Detroit won't have to worry about applying.

Will these games be on TV?
On TV? The idea is for these games to own TV. This is supposed to be baseball's March Madness. So the worldwide TV possibilities would, theoretically, be endless.

TV deals still have to be negotiated with all the countries involved. But they'll be worth many pesos. The American TV, meanwhile, likely would be handled by more than one network, since every outfit that figures to be interested has other programming obligations that time of year.

At least one week of baseball would have to compete with the NCAA hoops tournament. But there probably would be at least some attempt to schedule around the dunks and free throws. And once the baseball final four hit the field, it would feel like the basketball tournament, except with bats and spikes -- because it's win or go home.

But in America, every sporting event except the Super Bowl has to compete with something. And the thing to remember is that, in Caracas and Tokyo, we can guarantee you that absolutely nobody is going to care whom Gonzaga is playing.

Would big-league teams agree to send their best players?
Given how reluctant some teams (translation: the Yankees) were to allow their minor leaguers to play on the last couple of Olympic teams, you can only imagine how tough it will be to convince them to send their best players to a World Cup.

But let's just say the commissioner, the union and all the top people in the sport have a major vested interest in having this World Cup succeed -- and there's a really good chance they'll be communicating that to every owner, every GM and every player who might wind up on somebody's team.

Insurance will be offered -- to both players and teams. Every effort will be made to assemble the best coaching and training staffs around. And, at least subtly, pressure will be applied. If even one team balks, it opens the door for every team to balk. So it's expected that more high-profile players will take part than you might think.

Whether some of them opt out to avoid the everything-is-illegal drug-testing stipulations is a whole different question. But there's reason to believe that when teams hit the field, that U.S.-Japan pitching matchup won't be Wes Obermueller vs. Masao Kida.

Will this kill spring training?
March in baseball has always been spring training's turf. But no one in baseball is worried that a World Cup would knock spring training off the radar screen.

"Obviously, spring training has a lot of tradition, and it has a special place in baseball," Archey said. "But it's not going away. We feel like the World Cup can more than just co-exist with spring training. It can enhance it."

With first-round games being staged near spring-training sites, the World Cup would actually be an inducement for more fans to travel to Florida and Arizona in March. And while it would subtract some star players from the Grapefruit League, many of them would be gone only a week -- unless their countries advance to the next round. And no one would be gone for more than two weeks.

Whatever negatives come with that, they would clearly be blown away by all the positives. Wouldn't they?

"What this is, really, is a great launching pad for the season and a platform we've never had to promote the best players in the world," Archey said. "There is nothing in sports like nation-versus-nation competition. The two most popular events in the world are the Olympics and the World Cup in soccer. And we think we can develop that kind of interest and excitement in this event."

And all that excitement can start to build any minute now -- as soon as everybody figures out those tricky who, what, when, where and hows.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to send Jayson a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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