In the finesttradition of American commercialism, Major League Baseball would be happy tosell you a $19.99 Italy cap, a $164.99 South Africa home jersey, a $234.99Derek Jeter USA jersey and various other trinkets associated with the inauguraland presumptuously named World Baseball Classic. Souvenirs aside, what MLB isreally selling is a vision: of a day when its game is played on multiplecontinents and the demand for the major league brand-think programming,advanced media, international corporate sponsorship and, yes, T-shirts andhats-covers the globe. How do you say "season tickets" in Mandarin? ¬∂The 16-team Classic begins on Friday with first-round pool play in Tokyo amongfour Asian teams and culminates with the championship game on March 20 in SanDiego, the last of 39 games spread among seven venues. Many of the world's bestplayers are scheduled to participate, including eight MVPs and three Cy YoungAward winners. The Classic, with its awkward pitch limitations, U.S.-favorablescheduling and anything-can-happen, single-elimination format in the semifinalsand final, may well be incapable of determining a genuine world champion, butthat's less of a concern than expanding MLB's reach-industry talk forcultivating new customers and developing more players beyond U.S. borders. ¬∂Big league baseball is, by almost any definition, more popular in the U.S. thanever, with another attendance record expected this season. But the sport isalso pushing closer to a saturation point in this country. Witness the FloridaMarlins' difficulty the past five years in finding a suitable relocation spot.The 1.3 billion-person market in China, however, offers enormous potential forrevenue growth.
Baseballcommissioner Bud Selig acknowledges that the Classic is more important to MLB'sgrowth abroad than at home. As an example, consider the starting time of theMarch 18 semifinal in which, if the favorites advance, the U.S. would playJapan: 10 p.m. EST on a Saturday, assuring a ratings disaster in the U.S. (Fox,baseball's network TV partner, is sitting out the Classic; all games will becarried by ESPN and its sister stations.) But the game has a noon Sundaystarting time in baseball-mad Japan, where World Series games have been knownto generate better ratings (as a percentage of viewers) than in the U.S.
Asked if thefurthest extrapolation of the Classic is a truly global major league structurethat would include intercontinental play in at least a postseason tournament,Selig said, "Yes, that is a dream of mine. Obviously there would have to beadvances in [speed of] air travel to help facilitate it. This [Classic] is justthe first step. Without it we don't have a chance."
The quest forinternational revenue growth has become the rare common ground between majorleague owners and the players' association. Union officials, for instance,aggressively recruited the top major leaguers to participate in theClassic-even hooking up lesser powers such as Italy and the Netherlands withname players such as Mike Piazza and Andruw Jones, respectively-knowing that anA-list of players was needed to make the event worthwhile. That effort was asuccess, though a raft of withdrawals in the past few months have includedstars such as Barry Bonds, Tim Hudson, Aramis Ramirez, Manny Ramirez and PedroMartinez (for at least the first round).
So motivated arethe players that the biggest worry among general managers is that they may trytoo hard, exerting themselves with playoff-level intensity at a time of yearwhen their body clocks usually are synchronized for lazy spring training games.National pride, not a grand marketing plan, is the carrot for the participatingplayers.
"People inVenezuela are going crazy about the Classic," San Francisco Giantsshortstop Omar Vizquel said last week. "It's been an incredible year forbaseball in Venezuela: Bobby Abreu wins the All-Star home run derby, OzzieGuillen wins the World Series, and Venezuela wins the Caribbean World Series.Now people are excited to see Venezuela be known for being Number 1 in baseballin the whole world."
Venezuela mustplay the Dominican Republic as many as three times just to reach the final(box, left). Indeed, the second-round Pool 2 play on March 12-15 in San Juan islikely to include Latin American powerhouses Venezuela, the Dominican Republic,Puerto Rico and Cuba in hotly contested games in a charged, festive atmosphere.The only time the U.S., which plays out of the other side of bracket, wouldmeet one of those teams would be in the title game.
The U.S. isconsidered the favorite because it has no obvious holes. Manager Buck Martinezcan employ this batting order: centerfielder Johnny Damon, shortstop Jeter,third baseman Alex Rodriguez, DH Mark Teixeira, first baseman Derrek Lee,leftfielder Ken Griffey Jr., catcher Jason Varitek, rightfielder Jeff Francoeurand second baseman Chase Utley. The roster includes only four startingpitchers-Roger Clemens, Jake Peavy, C.C. Sabathia and Dontrelle Willis-but adeep corps of hard-throwing relievers.
The depth of the30-man roster, however, matters much less in the one-game-eliminationsemifinals and final than it does in a series. One pitcher unfamiliar to majorleague hitters who throws the game of his life trumps having, for instance,batting champion Michael Young on the bench or American League Rookie of theYear Huston Street available in middle relief.
Pitchers areallowed to throw as many as 95 pitches in the semis and final. The limits aremuch more severe in pool play (65 pitches in the first round and 80 in thesecond) to protect major leaguers from the risk of injury as they build armstrength for the regular season. The pitcher must be removed when he reachesthe limit, though if it occurs in the middle of an at bat, he will be permittedto finish pitching to that hitter.
In an interviewwith The Seattle Times last month Ichiro Suzuki of the Mariners, who will playfor Japan, complained, "I can't believe they're imposing pitch limits. Ifthis is really going to be a tournament to determine the world's best baseballteam, then they should let us compete with normal rules."
As it is, majorleague general managers, managers and coaches will hold their collective breathduring the tournament, hoping their players escape healthy and don't sufferfrom late-season fatigue due to playing meaningful games in March. The groininjury suffered by Ottawa Senators goaltender Dominik Hasek in the Olympicslast month served as a reminder of one potential cost of selling a sportinternationally.
As with theopening of a fine restaurant, the Classic is bound to have flaws that are notapparent until it's actually up and running. The tournament is scheduled to beheld again in 2009-which gets it off the same schedule as the Winter Olympicsand World Cup, natural competitors for interest and advertising dollars-andevery four years thereafter.
"Anytime youtry something new, you're always going to have detractors," Selig says."I compare it to all the people who were against the wild card andinterleague play at first. But I don't think people understand how big this isfor the future of the game."
Let the sellingbegin.
Handicapping The Top Eight
THE WBC'S 16 teams are divided into four pools, witheach team playing the other three teams in its pool once. The U.S. will play inPool B against Mexico (March 7 in Phoenix), Canada (March 8 in Phoenix) andSouth Africa (March 10 in Scottsdale, Ariz.). The two teams with the bestrecords in each pool advance to the second round. Ties are broken first byhead-to-head results and then by fewest runs allowed per inning.
The same format is used in the second round, when thetop two teams from Pool A (China, Chinese Taipei, Japan and Korea) form a newpool with the top two teams from Pool B. Likewise, the top two teams from PoolC (Cuba, Panama, Puerto Rico and the Netherlands) join the top two teams fromPool D (Australia, the Dominican Republic, Italy and Venezuela).
The two teams with the best records from each of thesecond-round pools meet in one-game semifinals on March 18 in San Diego, withthe winners advancing to the championship game there two days later. Here arethe eight teams most likely to advance to the second round (listed with SI'sodds of winning the tournament).
1. U.S. (6-5). Good luck trying to beat this team latein the game, which in this tournament may be after the fifth inning. Thebullpen includes closers Chad Cordero, Brian Fuentes, Brad Lidge, Joe Nathan,Huston Street and Billy Wagner.
2. DOMINICAN REPUBLIC (even). The scariest lineup inthe tournament includes Vladimir Guerrero, David Ortiz, Albert Pujols andMiguel Tejada. The pitching staff will be short if Pedro Martinez's injuredright toe sidelines him.
3. VENEZUELA (7-1). This sleeper team featuresterrific starting pitching (Freddy Garcia, Johan Santana and Carlos Zambrano).Bobby Abreu, Miguel Cabrera and Magglio Ordo√±ez make for a solid middle of theorder.
4. PUERTO RICO (9-1). Headed by Joel Pi√±eiro andJavier Vazquez, the pitching staff isn't deep enough to win, but scoringshouldn't be a problem with Carlos Beltran, Carlos Delgado and Ivan Rodriguezin the lineup.
5. JAPAN (10-1). Ichiro Suzuki is the only U.S. majorleaguer in the lineup. Japan's pitching is the key, particularly if theadjustment to a slicker, slightly larger baseball than the one used by Asianteams is an awkward one.
6. CUBA (15-1). The Cubans figure to be the mostgame-ready team, having put their season on hold on Feb. 12 to prepare for theClassic. Pitching and defense are their strengths; the offense is led by thirdbaseman Michel Enriquez.
7. KOREA (20-1). Major leaguers Sunny Kim, Chan HoPark and Jae Seo provide enough starting pitching to push the Koreans past arespectable Chinese Taipei team for the second quarterfinal spot out of PoolA.
8. MEXICO (30-1). Though offense could be a problem,pitchers Esteban Loaiza, Rodrigo Lopez, Sergio Mitre and Oliver Perez giveMexico a slight edge over Canada as the second team to advance out of PoolB.
Stepping into The Spotlight
MANY OF THE major leagues' biggest stars will be frontand center in the World Baseball Classic, but the inaugural event also willshowcase these international standouts who are mostly unknown to fans in theU.S.
FRANCISCO CAMPOS, > RHP, Mexico In 2005 the33-year-old starter for the Pirates of Campeche struck out 170 in 152 innings,had a 2.84 ERA and was named Pitcher of the Year in the Mexican League for thesecond straight season.
CHANG TAI-SAN, 3B, Chinese Taipei The youngest playerto hit 100 homers and drive in 500 runs in Chinese League history, the six-timeAll-Star hit .305 last season for the Sinon Bulls.
YULIESKI GOURRIEL, 3B, Cuba Major league scouts marvelat the slick infielder (he can also play second and short), who at 21 isalready the best power hitter in the Cuban league. Through the first 66 gamesof '06 he had a league-leading 17 homers.
JUSTIN HUBER, 1B, Australia The Melbourne native, 23,is the top young slugger from Down Under and will bat in the heart ofAustralia's order. Last season the Royals prospect hit a combined .326 with a.977 OPS at Double A Wichita and Triple A Omaha.
LEE SEUNG YEOP, 1B, Korea Nicknamed the Lion King, heholds the Asian single-season home run record (56 for the Samsung Lions of theKorean Baseball Organization in 2003); last year he hit 30 in 117 games forChiba Lotte of Japan's Pacific League. Over the winter the 29-year-old freeagent signed with Japan's Yomiuri Giants. FRANCISCO LIRIANO, LHP, DominicanRepublic Armed with a 98-mph fastball and an above-average slider, the22-year-old went 9-2 with a 1.78 ERA at Triple A Rochester in '05 and may crackthe Twins' rotation this spring. With Bartolo Colon and Pedro Martinez comingback from injuries, he'll be counted on heavily by the Dominicans.
ADAM LOEWEN, LHP, Canada Last year the 6'5"Orioles minor leaguer had 146 K's in 142 innings at Class A Frederick and a1.67 ERA in the Arizona Fall League. The 21-year-old is one of three talentedlefties in Canada's rotation, joining the Orioles' Erik Bedard and the Rockies'Jeff Francis.
DAISUKE MATSUZAKA, RHP, Japan Widely considered thetop pitcher in Japan, the 25-year-old went 14-13 with a 2.30 ERA last seasonand led the Pacific League in strikeouts (226), innings (215) and completegames (15). Matsuzaka is interested in jumping to the U.S. major leagues nextyear if he can secure his release from the Seibu Lions.
SUN LINGFENG, CF, China The speedy, 5'8" slaphitter-national team manager Jim Lefebvre calls the 27-year-old the ChineseIchiro-was the Chinese League MVP two years ago. Last season, as the BeijingTigers' leadoff man, he stole a league-high 19 bases and sparked his team toits third straight championship.
Illustration by Victor Juhasz
Despite recent withdrawals the Classic still boasts (clockwise from top left)Ortiz, Jeter, Piazza, Suzuki and Santana.
ANTHONY J. CAUSI/ICON SMI; MIKE EHRMANN/WIREIMAGE.COM; ROB TRINGALI/SPORTSCHROME; LEON HALIP/WIREIMAGE.COM; DARREN CARROLL; JUAN BARRETO/AFP/GETTYIMAGES; JEFF TOPPING/REUTERS; JOHN GRIESHOP/MLB PHOTOS/GETTY IMAGES
FERNANDO LLANO/AP (TOP); CHINA FOTO PRESS