Wednesday, January 04, 2006

On Baseball, It's Always All About the Yankees

New York Times


By MURRAY CHASS

Published: January 4, 2006

FOR Major League Baseball's entry onto the international stage, the role of the requisite Ugly Americans is being played by the Yankees.

They have already established themselves as the Ugly Yankees, and before the inaugural World Baseball Classic is played in two months, they are a good bet to become even uglier.

No surprise there. Any time the Yankees are involved in a joint venture, they take a position most advantageous to themselves, often at the expense of others. This is the case with the Classic, the 16-team tournament that will be played in March.

At the moment, the most serious problem facing the event - the sport's first worldwide professional tournament - is the refusal of the United States Treasury Department to license Cuba to play in the United States. Classic officials have appealed that decision, submitting a new application that assures government officials that Cuba will not derive any revenue from the tournament.

"We're guardedly optimistic," Bob DuPuy, president of Major League Baseball, said of a possible change in the department's stance.

Cuba's absence from an international baseball tournament would dilute the event's integrity and its legitimacy. Cuba has long dominated international amateur tournaments and deserves a seat at the international table.

Cuba has taken a step toward getting that seat. In a letter to event organizers, the government of Fidel Castro has said it would give any money it earned to victims of Hurricane Katrina, putting the baseball tournament on a level with previous international events Cuban teams have participated in. As a result of that pledge, it is highly likely that Cuba will gain admission.

Not so easily resolved is the problem posed by the Yankees, the only team that didn't vote for the Classic. From the start, George Steinbrenner didn't want his players in the tournament. If the Yankees were to be believed, all of their candidates for the tournament were injured.

Steinbrenner was once active in the American Olympic movement, but in his view, the March Classic will not benefit the Yankees. What's in it for them? An increase in international interest in baseball? An increase in international marketing revenue for baseball? The Yankees, Steinbrenner would say if he were willing to speak publicly, do well enough on their own, generating revenue for themselves.

Steinbrenner's attitude has not been lost on his players. For their own stated reasons, Alex Rodriguez, Hideki Matsui, Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera and Randy Johnson have said they will not play. Gary Sheffield may still join that crowd.

Four Yankees are set to play - Derek Jeter and Johnny Damon for the United States (although Damon was put on the roster before joining the Yankees), Bernie Williams for Puerto Rico and Robinson Cano for the Dominican Republic. And Rodriguez, who said he couldn't decide whether to play for the United States or the Dominican Republic and didn't want to insult the one he didn't choose, is expected to announce this week that he has changed his mind and will play for the United States team.

Matsui, whose snub of Manager Sadaharu Oh was uncharacteristic of Japanese players, may yet change his mind, too, and play for Japan, though that likelihood is not as strong as Rodriguez's pending reversal. Matsui said last week that he would pass up the tournament to concentrate all of his efforts on winning a championship with the Yankees.

"I fear that chasing two goals might get in the way of that dream," Matsui said in a statement.

His decision was not popular in Japan, and it was not popular with the event organizers.

"Every player has a right to play or not to play," Gene Orza, the union's chief operating officer, said Monday. "You only hope the player who says no has a full understanding of the tournament and the consequences of his nonparticipation, especially when it's a player who wouldn't be here and who wouldn't have the new contract he has but for the association."

The union was instrumental in Matsui's ability to sign with the Yankees as a free agent ($21 million), then to be in position to be a free agent again after only three years ($52 million).

Rivera was another Yankees player who insulted his country. He said he would not play for Panama because Panama didn't have a chance to win the tournament.

Roberto Kelly, a former Yankees center fielder, who is the manager of the Panamanian team, may want to invoke Rivera's words to inspire his underdog players.

Posada will not catch for the Puerto Rican team, though that decision could also change. The Puerto Rican baseball federation requested Posada's presence, but the Yankees asked Major League Baseball to excuse him. Officials in the commissioner's office reviewed the Yankees' request and, mistakenly thinking the players union shared the view, accepted it.

"We've notified Major League Baseball we may or may not disagree," Orza said.

The Yankees also requested medical exemptions for Carl Pavano and Chien-Ming Wang. Insurance costs for Johnson prompted officials to excuse him.

The Pavano request was granted, considering he missed the second half of last season, but the Wang request is being held up. Wang, a Taiwanese pitcher, has agreed to play, pending review of his medical circumstances. Wang started five games in September after recovering from a shoulder ailment.

Sheffield was a late addition to the United States list, and no decision has been made on whether he will play. In this new era of international play, it seems that if Steinbrenner objects to his players competing for their countries, he could change his style. Let other teams sign players from Japan, Taiwan and Panama. And for good measure, let other teams sign the best free agents and do not trade for All-Star players.

But then the Yankees would be ugly in another way.

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