Puerto Rico can't wait to play WBC

Delgado, Vazquez eager to help skipper Oquendo

Javier Vazquez, now with the White Sox, is excited about representing his native Puerto Rico. (Roy Dabner/AP)

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One month -- one short month -- before its national team collects in Port St. Lucie, Fla., Puerto Rico is running a World Baseball Classic fever.

"Let me put it this way," Carlos Delgado said Wednesday. "There are no tickets left. It's sold out."

The players are also running a temperature. Foreign-born big leaguers who contribute to the Majors' rich texture express national pride at every chance. Soon, they will be able to exercise it, and the mere anticipation is invigorating.

This unified passion burns even stronger among the stars who will represent Puerto Rico, the so-called 51st state. The WBC is an opportunity to reinforce their identity.

"I'm proud to be a Puerto Rican. Obviously, we think this is a big deal," said Delgado, participating in a press conference call. "It's going to be awesome. There'll be a lot of emotion.

"We have the opportunity to represent the country in front of a home crowd, and that's pretty neat."

Right-hander Javier Vazquez joined Delgado on the call, as did Puerto Rico manager Jose Oquendo, who already had manager-type issues.

Oquendo had to address rumblings that Javy Lopez may withdraw from the team due to a contract squabble with the Orioles. Reacting to being displaced as Baltimore's regular catcher by free agent signee Ramon Hernandez, Lopez is requesting either a contract extension or a trade.

"Well, we haven't lost him yet," Oquendo said. "I talked to him [Tuesday] night, and we understand his situation. I'd still like him to be part of the national team, but if he is not, we have enough quality players who can contribute."

Interestingly, Puerto Rico has also listed Lopez as a first baseman on its early roster; the brothers Molina (Yadier and Bengie) and Ivan Rodriguez are among the catching candidates.

With or without Lopez, Puerto Rico is loaded to compete in the WBC's Pool 3, with Cuba, Panama and the Netherlands.

"The hardest thing for Mr. Oquendo," Delgado noted, "will be making out the lineup."

And the hardest thing for Mr. Oquendo's team will be remaining patient until its third game in Hiram Bithorn Stadium, against Cuba. Are you also supposed to play WBC games one at a time? No question Puerto Rico will play, and Oquendo manage, its first two games with a forward look.

The United States may consider itself the overall favorite in the 16-team global tournament, as Alex Rodriguez and Johnny Damon had proclaimed in their own call with reporters last week. Pool-by-pool, few would argue that Cuba is the favorite in Pool 3.

"Cuba is one of the best teams in the world and everyone hears about their great reputation," said Delgado, the Mets' new first baseman. "A lot of people have wanted to see them matched up against some professional teams, so I know that'll draw a lot of attention.

"But we're going in with a positive outlook. You can't get careless against teams you're expected to beat, or get too down against a team that's supposed to be really good. We'll see what happens.

"Cuba will be very good. It will be very nice to get to the second round."

Round 2 will also be staged in Hiram Bithorn Stadium, featuring the two survivors from Pools 3 and 4 (Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Italy, Australia).

Added Vazquez, "A bunch of teams have great national teams, but we think we have a great team, too. On the field, it's not always the team with the best players that wins, but the team that plays the best."

Anticipation for the WBC doubtless is running higher in Puerto Rico than in the other venues: the United States (Arizona, Florida, California), where especially this week sports fans have a Super Bowl to think about, and Japan, where Major League-caliber ball also is not a novelty.

"But we're smaller, and there aren't that many opportunities for fans to watch big league players in some real games," Delgado said. "That makes the WBC more exciting for some of the smaller countries in Latin America."

The 2003-04 chance to occasionally host the estranged Montreal Expos was just an appetizer for Puerto Rican fans.

"No one has ever seen so many big league players in a tournament like this," Vazquez said. "In Puerto Rico, this is very exciting. But in all of Latin America, we take a lot of pride in baseball as the national sport and want to represent our countries to the best of our abilities."

Oquendo, the Cardinals' third base coach since 1999, is both eager and curious to gather his squad on March 3 in Port St. Lucie for a concentrated camp.

"These players have never had to be in midseason form so early, but the guys are doing a great job to get in shape," Oquendo said. "When we meet, I think the team will come together real quick. It will turn out to be a great event."

Vazquez, the new man in the middle of the White Sox heralded starting rotation, is taking the WBC seriously enough to have dramatically accelerated his normal preseason routine.

"I've already been throwing bullpen for about five weeks now," he reported. "I'm trying to do anything I can to get ready.

"It's about trying to win for your country. Yes, I know I'll be ready."

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.