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Getting familiarized with the World Baseball Classic

By Chris Ruddick
MLB Editor

Chris Ruddick Logo Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - If the recent Winter Olympics were not enough to whet your patriotic appetite, then maybe the first-ever World Baseball Classic will have you singing the Star Spangled Banner as the much ballyhooed international competition gets underway this week.

What exactly is the World Baseball Classic, you ask? Well you've come to the right place. The WBC is a 16-team tournament that will feature some of the best baseball players in all of the world competing for their countries and/or territories for the right to lay claim to true world baseball supremacy.

The teams have been divided into four pools of four teams. Pool A will feature China, Chinese Taipei, Japan and Korea. The U.S., Canada, Mexico and South Africa comprise Pool B, while Cuba, the Netherlands, Panama and Puerto Rico make up Pool C. Pool D will consist of Australia, Italy, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela.

There will be four rounds to the event. Round 1 will feature a round-robin format as all teams within each pool will match up one time. Then, the top two teams from each Pool will advance to Round 2, where they will be split into two pools (Pool A vs. Pool B and Pool C vs. Pool D) and will again play one another in a round-robin format.

Getting all this?

From there, the top teams in each Pool from Round 2 will advance to two single-elimination semifinal games. The winners of the semis will then compete in a single championship game to be held March 20 at PETCO Park.

Unfortunately, the WBC hasn't been met with the same fanfare here in the States as it has been in other places such as Japan, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, for instance, as most fans (and owners) are dreading seeing one of their star players injured in the tournament.

I, for one, cannot wait for this event to kick off. Injuries are a part of the game and someone could just as easily get hurt in a meaningless spring training contest as they could in one of these games.

Nobody wants to see one of their top pitchers go down early because they were overextending themselves in the WBC. I understand that, but that is why there have been specific rules and pitch counts put in place to protect the pitchers.

To me it seems like a win-win situation for baseball. Especially since this is the only venue for a world baseball competition, as the Olympics recently voted the sport out of the 2012 London Games.

I believe fans here in America will latch on as the tournament gets going. Provided, of course, that the United States does not lay an absolute egg in an event that is tailor-made for them to be playing in the final game. If that turns out to be the case, then just disregard everything I have said here.

Another reason why the WBC seems to be losing steam is the fact that big name players seem to be pulling out by the day. Barry Bonds, Hideki Matsui, Manny Ramirez, Tim Hudson, and Luis Gonzalez, among others, have all decided to skip the event, while Pedro Martinez will miss the first round because of a toe injury.

"The success of the tournament can be measured by one thing and one thing principally," said Gene Orza, one of the tournament's directors. "And that is to the degree players come out of it telling their fellow players that it was a lot of fun and they made a mistake by not playing."

If this tournament turns out to be half as entertaining as the recently concluded Caribbean World Series between the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, then Bud Selig should have a winner on his hands.

For those of you who might have missed it, Venezuela defeated the Dominican Republic with a dramatic bottom of the ninth inning rally to capture the Series. Fans and players in Venezuela, where they value this as much as a World Series title, are still celebrating the victory.

That is where the passion is going to come from. The international fans. Watch the crowds at Hiram Bithorn Stadium in Puerto Rico. They will be absolutely out of their minds, and hopefully that enthusiasm will carry over to the U.S.

With the Olympics being such a downer, especially here in the United States, this has the potential to generate some real excitement here in America too. I mean it is not going to 1980 Men's Hockey team thrilling, but can you imagine the interest if a U.S. squad led by Roger Clemens is facing Martinez and the Dominicans in the finale? PETCO will be jumping and I guarantee you that matchup would not get doubled in the television ratings by American Idol.

Not to mention the high note that Major League Baseball will be starting its season on. You think that would be a little better way to kick off your campaign rather than last year's steroid scandal that hovered over Opening Day?

Now let's take a look at the participating countries and their chances:

CONTENDERS

United States - Team USA, guided by former Toronto Blue Jays skipper Buck Martinez, will be comprised of all Major League players. The New York Yankees, as one would expect, figure prominently on the team, as Derek Jeter, Johnny Damon and we are pretty sure Alex Rodriguez will all be participating. Future Hall of Famer Clemens headlines a staff that also consists of San Diego Padres ace Jake Peavy, Florida Marlins lefthander Dontrelle Willis and Cleveland southpaw C.C. Sabathia. Closers Billy Wagner of the New York Mets and Brad Lidge of the Houston Astros anchor a bullpen that will be featured prominently with the limited pitch counts.

The U.S. should easily get to the final weekend and there is no reason why it shouldn't be playing in the final game.

Dominican Republic - Probably the favorite going into the event, The D.R. boasts an intimidating lineup that will feature the likes of Albert Pujols, Alfonso Soriano, Miguel Tejada, David Ortiz and Vladimir Guerrero, among others. The starting rotation will be led by Martinez. However, a toe injury won't let him pitch in Round 1. It won't really matter, though, as the Dominicans have enough arms to get through.

Fans in the Dominican Republic should clear their calendars on March 20.

Venezuela - Still basking in the glow of their thrilling Caribbean World Series title, the Venezuelans come to the WBC with an even better team. Johan Santana headlines an impressive staff that will likely also include Freddy Garcia and Carlos Zambrano. Bobby Abreu and Magglio Ordonez will provide the pop to a lineup that should also feature Alex Gonzalez, Carlos Guillen, Omar Vizquel and Miguel Cabrera.

One of the better teams in the event. Unfortunately the Dominicans are in their pool and will have to face them throughout.

Puerto Rico - The Puerto Rican squad is not getting much attention but is loaded with major league talent. Although I guess a team that consists of Carlos Beltran, Carlos Delgado and Ivan Rodriguez can't really be considered a sleeper. Bernie Williams is also on the roster and the pitching staff will be anchored by Javier Vazquez.

Has a solid chance of seeing San Diego, but will likely face either the D.R. or Venezuela in the semis.

Japan - Ichiro Suzuki headlines a group of Japanese players that are always eager to prove that they belong on the big stage when it comes to baseball. With Matsui opting to skip the tournament, Japan will get its power from first baseman/designated hitter Nobuhiko Matsunaka, who led the Pacific League with 46 home runs (a national best) and 121 RBIs. He also hit .315 and just missed what would have been back-to-back Triple Crowns by seven points.

Should easily make it out of its pool and will likely face the U.S. in San Diego.

SLEEPERS

Canada - Former major leaguer Ernie Whitt will manage a group that will be led by outfielder Jason Bay. Other big league players include Justin Morneau, Juan Pierre, Erik Bedard, Chris Reitsma, Matt Stairs and Corey Koskie. Stud closer Eric Gagne may also be part of the team, but will likely miss the tourney to ensure his surgically repaired elbow is ready for the start of the season.

Will likely battle Mexico to get out of Round 1, but its ride will come to a close in Round 2.

Cuba - Always a threat in the world of baseball. But I have to believe the U.S. is already home to some of Cuba's best talent. You don't think Fidel is going to allow Jose Contreras to pitch for the Cubans, do you? The big question is, how many Cubans find a way to stay here in the United States?

Will battle Puerto Rico for Pool C superiority.

THE REST OF THE PACK

Mexico - Suffered a big blow when Nomar Garciaparra (who even knew he was Mexican) pulled out. However, it is not like his inclusion would have guaranteed anything.

Netherlands - Andruw Jones and Mark Mulder are on the roster, but unfortunately that is it.

Panama - No Mariano Rivera, no chance.

Australia - Will be thrown to the Dominican and Venezuelan wolves.

Chinese Taipei - Unfortunately this is the World Baseball Classic and not the Little League World Series. Losing Chien-Ming Wang hurt.

Italy - Mike Piazza is on the roster and that is about all you need to know about the Italian team.

China - Thanks for participating.

South Africa - Maybe next time.

Korea - Hope to see you at the next event.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Chris Ruddick at cruddick@sportsnetwork.com.
Eric Gold


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