Classic is back, better than ever
New rules encompass tournament the second time around
LAS VEGAS -- The World Baseball Classic makes its return in March 2009 at seven international venues, and this time, there will be more preparation for teams in advance of the event. There will be mandatory early Spring Training reporting dates for Major League players participating and a three-game exhibition schedule before the tournament begins for each of the 16 competing teams in four pools."Any time you can get going a little bit earlier, I think it's only going to help," said Derek Jeter, the Yankees' shortstop and captain who will help anchor Team USA again as he did in 2006. "I think it's a great thing that you can get going and organized a little bit earlier." Participating pitchers and catchers must report to Major League Baseball camps by Feb. 14, with position players due three days later. The four teams from Asia will report in full by Feb. 14. There also will be new rules for teams to advance from the opening two rounds. Those rounds are now double-elimination play instead of round robin, meaning that the squads which lose twice in each four-team bracket are out. The tournament begins in Tokyo on March 5 and runs through March 23. In the three other first-round venues -- Toronto, Mexico City and San Juan, Puerto Rico -- the first games will be played on March 7 and 8. Thus, the 12 teams competing in those three countries will have three solid weeks to get ready. All 39 games will be televised by ESPN and the new MLB Network, 16 by the fledgling network which will be born on Jan. 1 and debut to a potential audience of more than 50 million basic-cable subscribers. The field once again includes Australia, Canada, China, Chinese Taipei, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Italy, the Netherlands, Japan, Korea, Mexico, Panama, Puerto Rico, South Africa, the U.S. and Venezuela. Provisional rosters of 45 men per team will be announced on Jan. 19. Final rosters of 28 players -- including a mandatory 13 pitchers -- must be set by Feb. 24. Before the inaugural 2006 tournament, early reporting was voluntary. The lack of preparation outside of Asia, where teams gathered as units very early, was one reason given why Team USA didn't make it out of the second round. Japan and Korea both made it to the semifinals, with Japan vanquishing Cuba to win the inaugural Classic championship. "It's easier when you insist that things are mandatory," said Bob DuPuy, MLB's president and chief operating officer, during a Wednesday news conference at the Winter Meetings. "Providing flexibility and providing variability just leads to confusion. If you have fixed dates, it makes life easier." For example, members of Team USA initially will train with their respective Major League team before gathering as a unit on March 2 at the Phillies' Spring Training complex in Clearwater, Fla. The squad, to be managed by Davey Johnson, will play the Yankees in Tampa, Fla., on March 3, the Blue Jays in Dunedin, Fla., on March 4 and the Phillies in Clearwater on March 5. The U.S. then opens the tournament on March 7 against Canada in Toronto's Rogers Centre. Don Fehr, the executive director of the Players Association, which is in partnership with MLB to produce, promote, underwrite and stage the tournament, said the extra preparation time can only be a good thing. "All I can tell you is that we looked at the calendar and we looked at what happened with the preparation last time and said, 'Can we find some additional time, and will everybody agree to it?'" he said. "And the answer was yes and yes." In 2006, 486 players participated, 235 of them with Major League pedigrees, Fehr said. This time, more than 600 have made applications to play, with about 250 of them expected to come out of the Major and Minor Leagues, added Paul Archey, MLB's vice president of international business operations. They will participate in a tournament that begins in Japan and ends on March 23 with the championship game at Dodger Stadium. First-round games are slated for Tokyo Dome from March 5-8, Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan from March 7-11 and Toronto's Rogers Centre and Foro Sol Stadium in Mexico City from March 8-12. The second round was awarded to San Diego's PETCO Park and Dolphin Stadium in Miami, with the games being played in those two venues on March 14-19. And Dodger Stadium will host the semifinals and finals on March 21 and 23. "More than 740,000 fans -- comparable to the Winter Olympics -- from 48 states and 15 different countries attended the games in the first World Baseball Classic," DuPuy said. "It was broadcast by 48 different organizations in 205 countries and territories and in 10 different languages. The 2009 version is going to build on that." The 16-team field is the same as '06, though an expansion of the field to 24 countries and territories with qualifying rounds as a preface to reach the main competition is under consideration for 2013, when the tournament begins its every-four-year format. As in '06, there will be pitch limits per game and off-days between appearances to try and avoid pitching injuries so early in the year. In 2006, it was 65 pitches for Round 1, 80 for Round 2 and 95 for the semifinals and finals. But those could increase this year because of the extra training. Hall of Fame Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda, who managed Team USA to its only baseball gold medal in the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia, will travel the globe again as ambassador of the World Baseball Classic. Johnson, who managed the U.S. to a bronze in Beijing this past summer, can't wait to get on with it. "I think it's going to be very exciting format and tournament," said Johnson, who also led the Mets to a seven-game World Series win over the Red Sox in 1986. "I'm looking forward to getting things started. We are already starting to make phone calls and talk to players and find out who's interested."
Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.