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Baseball Fans Don't Rush to Embrace Classic


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Michele Norris.

Tomorrow Team USA plays its first game in the World Baseball Classic. Sixteen teams from around the world are participating in games held in a number of counties.

The event was created by Major League Baseball to promote the game internationally. A number of major leaguers are playing for their native countries in the Classic, and that could make for some very competitive games.

Our story comes from Mark Moran, of member station KJZZ.

MARK MORAN: So many high profile players have dropped out of the World Baseball Classic that it would be easy to agree with critics who say the tournament really doesn't amount to much. Manny Ramirez, Pedro Martinez, and Vladimir Guerrero are all no-goes and slugger Barry Bonds has said the tournament is no big deal. But don't tell Yankee third baseman Alex Rodriguez that. He plays for the U.S. team.

ALEX RODRIGUEZ: If you look at the talent assembled here by U.S.A., it's something to be very proud of. But I think it's going to be a fantastic event now that we're here.

MORAN: The U.S. team is a collection of all-stars and future Hall of Famers. In addition to Rodriguez, there's the Yankees' Derek Jeter taking ground balls at short. The Reds' Ken Griffey, Jr. smashing balls twenty rows deep in the seats during batting practice. And over there, Astros' pitcher Roger Clemens is warming up.

Marlins pitcher Dontrelle Willis, who at 24 has already won a World Series, says he is awestruck to be surrounded by so much talent.

DONTRELLE WILLIS: It's really surreal to be with guys like that, but, you know, when it's all said and done I can tell my grandkids that, you know, one day granddaddy was pretty good to be able to say he could play and suit up with these guys. So I'm not worried about a thing, they're going to go do what they gotta do. I'm just worried about myself, you know?

MORAN: Other people are worried about Willis too, and the hundreds of millions of dollars in salary that these players represent. After all, spring training started only two weeks ago, and some teams are concerned that their stars will get hurt, perhaps letting adrenaline get the upper hand before their bodies are ready.

Some fans are unhappy too. There are signs at the Yankee spring training complex in Florida apologizing to the fans for the absence of some of the team's biggest stars. Yankees owner George Steinbrenner has perhaps been the most outspoken critic, but Derek Jeter says injuries are part of the game.

DEREK JETER: People are not happy if they get injured out here, they're not happy if they get injured at their own spring training facility. So you have to try to learn your body, understand your body, know when you can push yourself and when you have to lay back a little bit. But that's part of the game.

MORAN: All of the players sounded pretty much the same theme. Promising to listen to their bodies, telling their respective front offices that they won't push too hard.

Ken Griffey, Jr. has been injured often in his career, but still wants to be here.

KEN GRIFFEY: You've got to look at it as, you know, there's people losing their lives, you know, in the war, and all they want you to do is play baseball, you know. And me being 36, that's not a hard decision to do.

MORAN: With the game on solid footing here in the U.S., Major League Baseball is eager to expand internationally. Laurel Prieb is with the commissioner's office.

LAUREL PRIEB: Beyond our myopic concerns about winning the major league season, which is very, very important, that we all have a responsibility to grow this game. And with that, we need everybody's support and putting our concerns secondary.

MORAN: The U.S. team takes on Mexico in a first round game tomorrow. The two best teams play for the championship in San Diego in a few weeks. Major league baseball received nearly 4,000 requests for media credentials for this tournament, more than twice what it receives for the World Series.

For NPR News, I'm Mark Moran, in Phoenix. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mark Moran