In March, Classic helps baseball find stride

ON BASEBALL

March 09, 2006|By DAN CONNOLLY

LAKE BUENA VISTA, FLA. — Lake Buena Vista, Fla.-- --It's only been two days, and there should be no rush to judgment when the conclusion may end up being that baseball commissioner Bud Selig is actually right about something.

But, honestly, the inaugural World Baseball Classic isn't half bad.

Especially for baseball in March.

Maybe being at Disney's Wide World of Sports complex is deteriorating the brain. All that "Happiest Celebration on Earth" propaganda outside the stadium may be subconsciously seeping through.

But if it weren't for the Classic, the only real baseball headlines this week would be the shocking death of Kirby Puckett and the expected death of Barry Bonds' credibility.

Instead, there has been baseball worth watching and baseball information worth learning, something that rarely happens in a month owned by college basketball.

In just two days of games, we have figured out this much:

The U.S. isn't invincible in its own pastime.

Orioles farmhand Adam Loewen can pitch against major leaguers.

Cuba's Yulieski Gourriel may be the best player we've never heard of.

David Ortiz is clutch, even in international exhibition games.

Venezuelans love to sing.

And the Italian team cooks pasta in its own clubhouse. Really.

Mike Piazza says so.

The likely Hall of Fame catcher is the only star on the Italian team, which consists mainly of minor leaguers whose names end in vowels.

One of the four Italy-born players on the roster, however, recently cooked pasta (al dente) in the clubhouse. And it was much better than the American version, not nearly as soft, Piazza said.

Talk about an international learning experience.

Orioles fans also may pick up a lesson or two from the Classic. For instance, the enthusiastic Venezuelan and Dominican Republic fans are into every pitch and yell at every out recorded by their defense - without any prompting from the scoreboard. Now that's a foreign concept at Camden Yards.

Perhaps more important, though, Orioles fans learned yesterday that the fourth overall pick in the 2002 amateur draft might not have been wasted after all.

Big lefty Loewen, whose minor league career has been a mixture of injury and disappointment, pitched 3 2/3 scoreless innings in Canada's 8-6 upset of the United States.

Loewen, who turns 22 in April, must make the Orioles' 25-man roster next spring. That seemed improbable after last season, when he walked 86 batters in 142 innings at Single-A Frederick.

But scouts raved about him in the Arizona Fall League and new pitching coach Leo Mazzone has been impressed with him this spring. And he didn't give up a run in his first real test yesterday against some tough U.S. hitters, including Derek Jeter, Ken Griffey and Derrek Lee.

Granted, Loewen walked three batters, gave up three hits and threw too many pitches - 61 in fewer than four innings. But it is certainly encouraging to see him handle a pressure situation, something that usually doesn't exist in March.

Another promising player worth watching the next three weeks is Gourriel, the fourth youngest on Cuba's Classic roster. The 21-year-old infielder had three hits and drove in four runs in Cuba's win against Panama. He doubled against the Orioles' Bruce Chen and hit a two-run homer in the ninth off Atlanta Braves' minor leaguer Manuel Acosta. A third baseman who played second against Panama, he would be a hot big league commodity if he ever left Cuba.

Normally, we wouldn't have the opportunity to watch Cuban players. Or soak up a Caribbean Series-type atmosphere, where salsa music plays and fans sing and dance in the aisles when their teams score.

It's not just the Latin countries that seem to care. More than 32,000 people showed up in Phoenix on Tuesday to see the U.S. and Mexico. And a sold-out crowd of more than 10,000 was here the same afternoon for the Dominican Republic-Venezuela game. It was such a hot ticket that Houston Astros general manager Tim Purpura, whose club trains in nearby Kissimmee, couldn't get a seat.

He landed just one ticket, and he gave it to his scouting director. So the GM of the reigning National League champions had to watch the game on a hotel TV.

That kind of stuff doesn't happen to baseball in March.

Amazingly, Selig might be right. The Classic may be a fun, interesting and entertaining event worth following.

Even after the Happiest Celebration on Earth is over.

dan.connnolly@balstsun.com

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