The first two times the World Baseball Classic was held, in 2006 and 2009, I paid zero attention.

It had nothing to do with the United States team being a flop. I have no more emotional investment in the U.S. team being successful in the WBC than Australia.

There was no chance to have a valid result -- not when top players were saying, "No thank you,'' and pitchers had to be used as if they were early in Cactus League or Grapefruit League exhibitions. To me, it was simply a gimmick for Major League Baseball to sell T-shirts in faraway lands, or increase ad revenue for the international broadcast of the All-Star Game and World Series.

This is why I'm very worried about myself tonight. I've become oddly fascinated with what is taking place in this third try at a WBC.

To get to this point, you have to accept as part of the competition those matters that were bothersome in the past:

Top players declining, pitchers being in spring-training mode, and the ultimate result proving little about the ranking of the world's baseball countries.

I've reached that acceptance in March 2013. I think it's because of Italy. I love Italy.

"But the players aren't from Italy,'' scream the critics. "They had great grandmothers with a painting of the Pope in a kitchen in Dubuque, and that qualifies them to play for Italy three generations later.''

Yes, which is why I love Italy.

Listen, I interviewed a handfui of players for Italy's Olympic hockey team in '94 in Lillehammer because they were Minnesota guys. And all had taken wonderful odysseys to gain eligibility to play for Italy and thus become Olympians.

That's what the World Baseball Classic is remindful of as a competition: the Olympic hockey tournament before the NHL started sending its players, and even more so, before the Iron Curtain fell..

Canada and the United States brought collections, and the Soviets and the Czechs brought their best, and who knew what might happen?

A hot goalie from North Easton, Mass. might beat the Soviets' Big Red Machine and we would all get a big hoot out of that one.

The WBC isn't as serious, of course. Bud Selig and hia henchmen can offer grandiose boasts of growing the game and eventually creating a World Series that  truly covers the world, but that's malarkey and not what this is about.

It's about fun.

A big part of the fun is seeing Chris Colabello and Drew Butera turn into the Bash Brothers (the Colpo Fratelli) for Italy, or the U.S. losing late to Mexico and you're wondering if Kenny Powers will come in to close it down. And then you see the real-life version of Kenny -- Dan Serafini -- arriving at the mound, not for Mexico where he has pitched for five or six years, but for Italy.

"DAN SERAFINI!,'' you holler to anyone willing to listen.  "It's him. He's taking the hill.''

Dan Serafini: first-rounder for the Twins in 1992, now 39, but with many more years on him through baseball travels, which included Bridgeport, Conn. and three Mexican League teams in 2012.

Plus, there's the Netherlands, which knocked off the Dominicans twice in 2009, and has advanced again in 2013.

The shills on the MLB Network are now referring to the squad as the "Kingdom of the Netherlands,'' to take into account the fact much of the roster is from the island of Curacao. This is also great, since the former Dutch Antilles became independent in 2010 and yet  the WBC continues to celebrate the grand days of colonization.

It also celebrates those great grandmothers who could conjure up a sauce over pasta to make you weep, and hang a rosary next to the picture of the Pontiff, and dream of the day that a family bambino from Florida named Drew could hit a home run for the glory of Italia.

Yup. I'm worried about myself. I'm into it.




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