Puerto Rico can't wait to play WBC
Delgado, Vazquez eager to help skipper Oquendo
By Tom Singer / MLB.com
"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.