Sunday, November 16, 2008

WBC...the World Championship

No, it's not a post about the World Boxing Council, but it is about a clash of heavyweights - the 2009 World Baseball Classic.

The initial international All-Star matchup in 2006 was greeted by yawns by the American baseball public at the start, but by its end, when the Japanese defeated the Cubans 10-6 at PETCO in front of a house of 42,696, it had earned its sporting spurs.

While greeted by a "show me" attitude by USA fans, the tournament was fanatically followed in the participating Asian and Latin American nations where TV ratings for games involving the homeland teams reached blow-up proportions, including a 36 share in Japan for its game against Korea.

And hey, what better way to internationalize the game? There were over 150 big league players representing their flag, the event drew 737,112 fans in 17 days and was pushed by 5,354 media outlets across the planet. Latino and Asian fans rocked the ball yards, with flag-waving and conga lines.

Even the usually grouchy Cubans liked it. They want to play every two years instead of the current four.

The games also proved to be a great showcase for world-class talent - does Daisuke Matsuzaka ring any bells? He was was 3-0 with a 1.38 ERA over three starts, and was named tournament MVP. The RHP allowed two earned runs over 13 innings, walking three and striking out 10. It got Dice-K a sweet deal with the BoSox, where he's won 33 games over the past two seasons.

It probably helped the tournament keep the spotlight of the world stage when the US was blown out of the water before the final round. Why the early exit?

Easy - because the rest of the world played small-ball and the U.S. sent an Earl Weaver line-up; live or die by the three run homer. They died by it. The international pitching, by and large, was just too good to tee off on consistently. In addition, not all of the MLB bought into the concept. That should change this year.

Its timing is ideal, being played in March rather than disrupting the season like the Olympics. And while one MLB player, RHP Luis Ayala, now of the Mets, had a season-ending elbow injury, the feared injury bug never appeared. What better way to start the MLB season than with some tub-thumping from the WBC?

This year's lineup of countries is the same as in 2006:

Pool A: China, Chinese Taipei, Japan and Korea in Tokyo (Tokyo Dome).

Pool B: Australia, Cuba, Mexico and South Africa in Mexico City (Estadio Foro Sol).

Pool C: Canada, Italy, the U. S. and Venezuela in Toronto (Rogers Centre).

Pool D: Dominican Republic, Netherlands, Panama and Puerto Rico in San Juan (Hiram Bithorn Stadium).

The winners from Pools A and B will go to PETCO Park and the winners from Pools C and D will go to Dolphin Stadium. The semi-finals and championship will be played at Dodger Stadium. The tourney will last from March 5th to the 23rd.

The playoff rules have been changed somewhat. Now instead of convoluted tie-breakers, a team is bounced from its pool by straightforward double-elimination.

Hey, we're looking forward to it. Other than watching the Pirate suits try to cobble together a lineup and rotation, it's the only game in town for us during the spring. USA...USA...USA!!!

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