Successful teams could play into late March

Updated: June 22, 2004, 1:26 AM ET
Associated Press

NEW YORK -- Players on teams that advance to the final stages of the first baseball World Cup would not be with their major league clubs for most of spring training next year.

Under the proposal being formulated by the commissioner's office, the 16-nation tournament would start March 4 in Asia and begin in the United States and Puerto Rico on March 9, several baseball officials told The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity.

There would be four groups of four nations in the first round, and the top two teams in each group would advance, according to documents distributed to team officials last week.

In the second round, there would be two groups of four teams, with the top two in each moving on to the semifinals. The semifinals and the final would be one-game knockouts, with the championship game played approximately March 21 in the western part of the United States.

The plan probably will be put to owners for a vote within a month. Deals for the tournament still need to be finalized with the International Baseball Federation and the Major League Baseball Players Association.

"We are encouraged by the progress that has been made," said Bob DuPuy, chief operating officer in the commissioner's office, "and we remain guardedly optimistic that we can get this done for next spring."

Many players would be excited to perform for national teams, among them Chicago White Sox pitcher Esteban Loaiza, who would play for Mexico.

"If they say yes, then I would like to go," he said Monday. "It's the World Cup of Baseball, something for our country to be a champion."

Some players might decline invitations because of the timing.

"Big-league players aren't going to play in that," San Francisco outfielder Michael Tucker said. "It's right in the middle of spring training. We've got games. What are we going to do, miss spring training and not be with our teams? It doesn't make any sense to me."

Giants manager Felipe Alou didn't go as far but said the timing is "going to be tough." Pittsburgh manager Lloyd McClendon said it "will be disruptive somewhat," then added that he was "not overly concerned."

"You're talking about playing for keeps and using integral parts of these major league teams," Los Angeles Dodgers manager Jim Tracy said. "Playing from March to October would be a long time. But if they want to do it, they'll try to contrive a way to do it."

In the first round, two groups are likely to be located in Florida, with one in Asia and one in Puerto Rico, the officials said.

Sandy Alderson, executive vice president for baseball operations in the commissioner's office, acknowledged that some teams may not make certain players available -- such as a starting catcher on a team with several new pitchers.

"It's going to depend on the individual, the circumstances of the team, other catching assets that they have," he said. "Each of these is going to have to be dealt with in critical positions on a case-by-case basis. I think that's a legitimate issue that would be discussed and resolved in the ordinary course."

Alderson said that teams generally aren't troubled by the prospect of losing players for several weeks next spring.

"Right now, I've gotten no disagreement on that point from any of the general managers with whom I've talked, and I've probably talked with half of the general managers," he said.

Although nations for the tournament have not been finalized, one of the documents created by the commissioner's office lists possible teams: Australia, Canada, China, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Italy, Japan, Mexico, the Netherlands, Panama, Puerto Rico, South Africa, South Korea, Taiwan, the United States and Venezuela.

The teams meeting in the finals would play eight games each in the tournament, not including any exhibition games before their openers. Because games start when players are just getting into playing condition, pitchers will face restrictions, especially in the first round. Don't expect any complete games.

"We've talked about pitch limitations and appearance limitations in pitching," Alderson said. "The idea would be to mirror the pitch limitations that are faced by pitchers at any particular time during their spring training with their teams. We have not at this point projected specific restrictions for closers. We have a rough outline for all relief pitchers so, for example, anybody that pitched more than one inning in relief would have to not be used early in the tournament for a minimum of two days. And there also would be a pitch limitation."

Some teams are concerned about insurance in the event of injuries.

"There will be insurance provided," Alderson said. "We expect that existing insurance policies on high-salaried, multiyear-contract players would continue to remain in force, so there would be two levels of insurance."

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press