The World Baseball Classic

The World Baseball Classic, the brainchild of Major League Baseball and the MLB Player’s Association, will be held in March of 2006. The tournament will bring together sixteen nations and territories where baseball is a popular pastime, with four pools of four teams each competing against one another for the right to advance to a one game finale. The World Baseball Classic’s objective is to increase the exposure of the game of baseball globally. It is a stirring concept, especially for fans of the countries involved. The World Baseball Classic will provide compelling contests and storylines for baseball followers who usually must wait for the regular season to end and the playoffs to begin to find such excitement and passion. And there will be passion!

March was really the only time that this novel event could be played out. The regular season, stretching from April to September, with the playoffs going into late October, afforded no space for such a bold affair. The long season’s strain on pitchers made it necessary to have the World Baseball Classic scheduled when they would be fresh. There are rules in place to protect the pitchers; pitch counts are in place to assure they do not overwork their arms. The tourney begins on Friday, March 3rd and concludes on Monday, March 20th.

Here is how the pool play works. The world’s best baseball countries and territories, sixteen in number, were divided up into four groups. A team in a group will play the other three teams once, with the two squads with the best record advancing to the next round. These eight teams will then be divided up into two pools of four. Again, each team in a pool will play the other teams in its division once. The two top sides will meet in the single elimination semi-finals, with the two victors going to the championship tilt to decide the winner.

Approximately sixty percent of the participants in the World Baseball Classic will have ties to Major League Baseball; either they are currently in the big leagues or under contract in the minors. The rest will come from various professional and amateur organizations around the world. Restrictions are in place to keep clubs from having more than fourteen players from one organization, or ten that were on the active roster of the major league team as of August 31st, 2005, chosen for the event, unless the club approves it.

Each participating team was required to submit a provisional roster of up to sixty players by January 17th, 2006. That roster will be narrowed down to thirty, which must be handed in five days before the team’s first game. There are rules in place to allow substitution in case of injuries; however, the substitution will not take place until the team’s next round. For instance, a player hurt in Round One of the World Baseball Classic will not be replaced until Round Two, and so forth.

Managers and coaches are selected by the governing body of baseball in each participating country and territory. The umpires will come mostly from the pro ranks, familiar with Major League Baseball rules and regulations and chosen by World Baseball Classic, Inc., the governing body of the whole affair. There will be training camps for the teams involved, but most of the professionals will be coming from their own spring training bases.

The only drawback to this competition is that almost to a man, major league managers are concerned what affect it will have on players, especially pitchers and catchers, come later in the season. Pitchers at this time of year are brought along slowly, gradually building up their arm strength. Veterans in spring training contests usually only pitch an inning or two at first; in the World Baseball Classic they will have their feet to the fire right off the bat, no pun intended. Adrenaline will be pumping and egos will be put into play, creating the opportunity for a hurler to perhaps overthrow and tweak his arm. The pitch count rules hope to alleviate this potential problem. In Round One, a pitcher can throw no more than sixty five pitches per game. That number rises to eighty per contest in the second round and ninety five in the semis and final. If a pitcher reaches his count in the middle of an at bat, he will be allowed to finish pitching to that batter and then must be removed from the game. Rules exist to also make sure that pitchers have proper rest between appearances.

Who is able to represent a nation or territory is somewhat complicated. Obviously, if you live there then you can play for that country or territory’s team. If you are a permanent legal resident, you also qualify. If you were born in the country or territory, you can represent them. If one of your parents was a resident or born in the country/territory, then you also meet the criteria. Many players are eligible under these rules to play for more than one team; in this case they must make a choice.

Controversy can ensue, as Yankee star Alex Rodriguez can attest. Eligible to play for both the Dominican Republic and the United States, he initially indicated he would play for the Dominicans. He did an about-face just a few days later, saying he would not play, as he did not want to insult the United States, where he lives. Then he finally agreed to join the US squad, touching off criticism from White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen that made headlines until the Chicago skipper apologized! The bottom line is that you are going to see baseball players that you know quite well playing for other countries, such as the Braves’ Andruw Jones on the Netherlands side and Jason Bay of the Pirates with Canada.

Let’s get into the pool play and the venues where the games will take place. Pool A is made up of China, Chinese Taipei, Korea, and Japan, all countries that have no love lost between one another and struggling to come out of the Far East and make the next round. Their tilts will be played in the Tokyo Dome in Tokyo, Japan. Don’t miss the match-ups of China versus Chinese Taipei and Japan against Korea, both on March 5th. Stars such as Ichiro Suzuki are on the Japan roster, but conspicuous by his absence is Yankee slugger Hideki Matsui, who will not play despite the urgings of Japan’s version of Babe Ruth, the legendary Sadahara Oh. Matsui opted out, fearing the World Baseball Classic would interfere with his preparations for what he hopes will be a World Series winning season in New York. China is a team that expects to compete without the use of any player under contract to a Major League baseball club. Good luck with that! There is a fifteen and ten run deficit mercy rule in effect that you might see implemented here.

Pool B is comprised of The United States, Mexico, Canada, and South Africa. They will be in Phoenix for their games, beginning with a March 7th date for the US and Mexico, along with Canada taking on the South Africans. The neophyte South Africans have only four players with major league affiliations. Uh-oh! Mexico will be led by veteran basher Vinny Castilla and rising star Jorge Cantu of the Devil Rays, while Canada has the aforementioned Bay and Oriole hurler Erik Bedard.

In San Juan, Puerto Rico, we find that the Netherlands, Panama, Cuba and Puerto Rico will do battle. Cuba was initially barred from the competition by the US treasury Department due to financial concerns with the Castro led government, but the problem was worked out, allowing the controversial island nation to join in on the fracas. Puerto Rico is a loaded team, having forty six players with big league experience available on their provisional roster, including a pair of Mets Carlos Beltran and Carlos Delgado. Panamanian superstar and future Hall of Famer reliever Mariano Rivera will skip the World Baseball Classic, much to the relief of Yankee manager Joe Torre, who can ill afford anything to happen to his team’s MVP. Cuba plays Puerto Rico on March 10th in what should be a great baseball game.

The final division, Pool D, contains Italy, Australia, Venezuela, and perhaps the most powerful team in the whole shebang, the Dominican Republic. The Dominicans will have at their disposal the talents of such big boppers as David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez of the Red Sox, Miguel Tejada of the Orioles, and fearsome slugger Albert Pujols of the Cardinals. Pitching for them will be Pedro Martinez, if his bothersome big toe allows, and Bartolo Colon of the Angels, last season’s Cy Young Award winner. It would be the upset of upsets if this team doesn’t make it out of this bracket, where games will be played in Orlando, Florida, at the Disney’s Wide World of Sports facilities. Only Venezuela, who might have the best pitching staff in the Classic with the likes of the Twins’ Johan Santana and White Sox ace Freddie Garcia, will have a chance to hang with the Dominican Republic. They meet on March 7th in the opener for both, which might be the best contest of the First Round.

The next round of games, featuring the eight teams that made it out of their pools, will take place at two venues; at Angel’s Stadium in Anaheim, California and Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan. In the Golden State, the Pool A squads will meet up with the Pool B teams, while Pools C and D go at it in Puerto Rico. The final four will land in San Diego, California, for the semifinals on March 18th and the final on the 20th, at the Padres’ home, Petco Park.

The World Baseball Classic is going to be exciting, controversial, and important for the development of the game of baseball. No baseball fan should miss these games. There will be a high degree of national pride on the line, with rivalries between several countries that is sure to make this event a memorable one.

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