Japan seeks a third title, the Dominican Republic wants to defend the crown and Americans wonder how they might ever win as the fourth World Baseball Classic opens Monday in Seoul.
Elite Major League Baseball talent, with 63 former all-stars including 25 from last season, will play for their homelands against top global standouts in a 16-team showdown that concludes with a March 22 final at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles.
“The footprint of baseball as a sport has never been broader around the world,” said Chris Park, Major League Baseball’s senior vice president of growth, strategy and international.
“We’re excited to get started. I don’t think you’ve ever seen this many national teams that have a legitimate chance to go far in this tournament.”
Two of four teams advance from first-round pools in Seoul, Tokyo, Miami and Guadalajara, Mexico, into second-round play at Tokyo and San Diego that will determine the four semi-finalists who play March 20-21 in Los Angeles.
South Korea plays host to Israel, a lineup with all pro talent, in Monday’s opener for Pool A, which also includes baseball hotbed Taiwan and unlikely Netherlands, filled with Caribbean talent from Curacao in the Dutch Antilles.
Japan, whose only major league player is Houston Astros outfielder Norichika Aoki, hosts Pool B with traditional power Cuba, Australia and China, where development camps have boosted the sport for nearly a decade.
“I know the players for sure and can give my teammates a little advice,” said Aoki, who helped Japan capture the 2006 and 2009 Classic crowns.
The defending champion Dominicans, who ran unbeaten to the 2013 title, join the US squad, Canada and Colombia in Miami’s Pool C while host Mexico welcomes powerful Puerto Rico and Venezuela plus Italy in Pool D.
Seattle sluggers Nelson Cruz and Cano powered the Dominican victory in 2013 and excitement over their repeat chances has already sparked a Miami sellout of 37,000 tickets for the first-round showdown with the USA.
Baseball’s birthplace, the United States, has never won the Classic, hurt by many clubs not wanting to part with top players during pre-season workouts. But with MLB unwilling to shut down its campaign for the Classic, the Americans must take those inpsired and allowed to play now.
“It’s just getting the guys pumped up to be amped up a little earlier than they normally do,” US manager Jim Leyland said. “That’s the good thing about it. It’s also the dangerous thing about it because they haven’t been in spring training all that long.”
The US pitchers are Tampa Bay’s Chris Archer, Washington’s Tanner Roark, Toronto’s Marcus Stroman and KC’s Danny Duffy, but few relievers have recent MLB experience.
MLB operates three development centers in China hoping the American pastime can gain a foothold there.
“We could not be more pleased with the progress we’re making. It is literally a grassroots effort,” Park said. “This tournament comes at a really good time for us both as a reflection of the progress baseball has made in China as well as a showcase for that progress.”
Designated hitter Xu Guiyan, the first player from China’s development program to sign with an MLB side after joining the Baltimore Orioles organization in 2015, will play for his homeland.
China also boasts 12-year minor-league shortstop Ray Chang, whose parents emigrated to Kansas City and opened a restaurant. He suffered a broken leg a day before he was to be called to play for Minnesota, missing his chance at an MLB game, and will retire after the Classic to manager a development center at Nanjing, China.
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