They Look to Stage an American Classic

Times Staff Writer

It was Bud Selig's dream, but Paul Seiler's job.

An international baseball tournament meant lists of American ballplayers, some positions 20 names deep, then reducing them to a few, then persuading them to come, then having them actually walk in, all of which led to Monday morning here.

"I'm nervous as heck," the executive director of USA Baseball said, leaning against a rail at Chase Field.

Selig, the players' association and the International Baseball Federation drew it up, but USA Baseball -- Seiler, Bob Watson and others -- were responsible for putting players on the field who might win.

The day before Team USA was to play Mexico in a first-round game of the World Baseball Classic, there was little sentiment toward putting on a show, growing the game, or avoiding injury. Manager Buck Martinez will hand Jake Peavy the baseball, back him with All-Stars, most valuable players and World Series champions, and point them all toward defending a reputation for excellence in an American game gone global.

"We do this every day, the international baseball thing, every year, every level," Seiler said. "U.S. players believe we're the best. The challenge, though, is taking guys out of their normal routines, the big leagues, and putting them into an environment they're not used to. In this format, you have to play as though there's no room for error. Over 162 games, you can't possibly play like that."

They've put together a nice team, capable enough to stand as pre-tournament favorites with the Dominican Republic and Venezuela. But no one is calling this a dream team, not with so many competent major leaguers -- some All-Stars and MVPs, as well -- on other rosters.

The American game now looks like other people's games, in places such as the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, along with Mexico, Cuba, Korea, Japan and Puerto Rico, a U.S commonwealth playing as a separate country, as it does in the Olympics.

"Cuba is legit," Watson, Team USA's general manager, said. "Please believe me."

So, even with Alex Rodriguez at third base, Derek Jeter at shortstop, Ken Griffey Jr. in center field and Derrek Lee at first base, a rotation of Roger Clemens, Dontrelle Willis and Peavy, and several closers in the bullpen, by Monday afternoon their happy-to-be-here had turned to we're-here-to-win.

"I think we need to win it to be successful," Lee said. "That said, there are some great teams out there that expect to win also."

After four days of bullpen sessions, batting practice and one exhibition, it was nearly time to take their game to the world. Not just baseball, but their baseball, whatever that might be, in the first full week of March. Pitchers are on pitch limits -- 65 in the first round -- and position players are reaching for batting strokes they haven't used since October, at the latest.

Asked how he felt after four at-bats Sunday, Rodriguez, the American League MVP last season, smiled and said, "March 5, that's how I feel. So, not very good."

Nearly a month from the regular season, the tournament was coming, however, and wouldn't wait for Rodriguez's swing or Peavy's slider to come around. Most of the players talked less about pressure to win and more about the responsibility of it, primarily because they expect it from themselves. Also, that they'd had such a good time so far, it'd be a shame to dampen the mood by losing.

"The guys in that clubhouse, there's no doubt anything short of winning this whole thing is going to be a failure and a disappointment to us," Peavy said. "I think that all 30 guys right now have the mind-set of winning this thing, and expect to."

Tournament organizers expect about 30,000 for today's game, far less than a sellout, but perhaps enough to fill the lower bowl and second tier. Across the country, in Orlando, Fla., the Dominican Republic and Venezuela will already have played to a sellout, though in a smaller venue.

Two years in the organizing, and going on a year since Seiler started jotting names beneath positions, Martinez finally had his opening-game batting order: Johnny Damon in left field, Jeter at shortstop, Griffey in center field, Rodriguez at third base, Mark Teixeira at designated hitter, Lee at first base, Brian Schneider at catcher, Randy Winn in right field and Chase Utley at second base.

Seiler said his "fantasy baseball" rosters, the first ones he drew up, were very close to this, close enough for him to be satisfied with who was here and what they'd done.

"The thing that's been really refreshing to me," he said, "is how important this seems to be to them, in terms of representing their country. I sense they've got it. I'd hoped they would lose their team identities and take on the identity of our country. They have. To say it's refreshing is probably an understatement."

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