The World Baseball Classic brings back that old feeling of joy and newness that I first felt way back when i was first introduced to baseball as a kid in 1987. It's now the premier international baseball tournament, the only one where Major League players participate. And now that Olympic baseball has been shelved, the WBC is more important than ever. This is only the second WBC tournament, the first was in 2006. So really, the WBC is still in its infancy, but its role in the international expansion of baseball shouldn't be understated - this event is the future of the sport.
Really, it's pretty amazing that the WBC is even here at all, it's rare that the powers-that-be Get It Right and give the sports enthusiast what he or she wants. Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig deserves a lot of credit for working with the walking corpses running the MLB teams and the players' union, making his dream of a high-end international tournament a reality. The first tournament was an absolute blast. The fans of the various countries brought a level of passion to the games that you won't usually see in the painfully-long 162-game Major League season. The WBC is tight and compact, and in lots of places fans love it like Babe Ruth loved beer and hot dogs. The fans of the Caribbean and Asian teams in particular put on a good show, as raucous and feisty as any liquored-up hoodlums at a good football match.
The Bottom Feeders
There are 16 teams in the WBC, and about six of them are weak and undeveloped - the biggest culprits are China and South Africa, two countries just beginning to taste the fruits of the Great American Pastime. They will inevitably be crushed, even in the finicky environment of double-elimination play. Australia, another of the weaker teams, is actually making great strides, there are a fair number of Aussies in the Major Leagues now, and there's a decent chance the sport could really catch on there. Taiwan is another place where baseball could gain a major foothold, the island has already produced some solid Major League talent, despite its meager size.
Rounding out the "Bottom Six" are the Netherlands and Italy, 2 teams that really don't feature many quality European players. Most of the better Italian players are Italian-American, and most of the Netherlands players are either Dutch Americans or are from the Netherlands Antilles. Panama is also close to making it into this dubious bracket of lesser-talented teams, they had an abyssmal 0-3 performance in the 2006 Classic, including a hitless game against the Netherlands (Yikes!). Panama has had trouble getting its better players to commit to playing, and they could be headed for another quick exit this year.
The Dark Horses
On the brighter side, Canada, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and South Korea all have a puncher's chance at winning the whole thing if they can get hot and go on a winning streak. As punchers, if Canada, Mexico, and Puerto Rico are kind of like Butterbean, then Korea is Hasim Rahman. Korea posted the best record in the tournament last year, going 6-1, their only loss was an elimination game in the semi-finals against Japan. Korea will be without slugger Seung Yeop Lee, who knocked 5 home runs in the last tournament. Still, if their pitching is as stellar as it was in 2006 (the Korenas posted an impressive 2.00 earned run average), don't be surprised if they run the table and take the competition by storm.
The Cream of the Crop
The five remaining super-teams are the USA, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, and defending champion Japan. Venezuela and the USA are in the same tough bracket along with Canada and Italy. Venezuela is without ace pitcher Johan Santana because of a recent knee surgery, but the Venezuelan roster is still well-endowed, and you can bet Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez would love to see his country's team send the USA home packing. Good lord, we'd never hear the end of it.
Fidel Castro is another loud-spoken fan of the game of baseball, and Cuba is no doubt bitter over its championship-game loss to Japan; Cuba is historically exceptioinal in international tournaments, though usually against minor-league players; by making it to the championship game in the 2006 WBC, they've proved they can definitely play with the big boys. The Cubans liked the tournament so much that Cuban officials are reportedly pushing to have the tournament held every two years, instead of every four years, which is the current planned schedule from 2013 onwards. Cuba is starving for the competition, but political friction with the United States almost kept them from participating in the 2006 event. The US Treasury initially denied the Cubans visas, and the Bush administration allowed them to participate only in the last moments leading up to the tournament on the condition that none of the profits be given to the Castro regime.
The Dominican Republic is another passionate baseball nation, and they're so loaded with skill that it almost boggles the mind. Alex Rodriguez, "Big Papi" David Ortiz, Hanley Ramirez, Moises Alou, Miguel Tejada... the list of stars and Hall of Famers goes on and on, the best assembly of hitting talent you'll see outside of a Major League All-star game. Their pitching is solid, too, though it's not as strong as their hitting.
Japan will also make a big impact, led by Red Sox sensation Daisuke Matsuzaka and hit-factory Ichiro Suzuki. Aside from their defense of the WBC title, the biggest story for Japan will be the performance of Yu Darvish, the half-Japanese, half-Iranian pitcher that some call the best in the world. It'll be the world's first good look at the young player, it should be a real treat.
Questions linger over USA
Oddly, the biggest question mark in the tournament is the United States. The US was only 3-3 in the last WBC, and the US fans were some of the most subdued in the tournament. Before it started, a lot of the American media and fans were aloof about the whole event. The US pitching will be our strongest asset this time around, with perennial aces Roy Oswalt and Jake Peavey leading the charge. The relief pitchers are fantastic as well, and the USA has assembled a much deeper bullpen over all; BJ Ryan, JJ Putz, Brian Fuentes, and especially Joe Nathan are all elite MLB closers, that's a combined 4 potential innings of A+ relief work for every game. The US team is well-balanced, but they don't have a tremendous amount of power hitting, and they'll have to rely heavily on Derek Jeter, American League Most Valuable Player Dustin Pedroia, and Kevin Youkilis. They're also going to need an exceptional effort from the supporting cast to go all the way to the title.
The tournament starts March 5 in Tokyo, expect to see thousands of rabid fans and a very competitive field this year, that's a sure-fire recipe for a lot of fun, make sure to check it out.