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BASEBALL

World Baseball Classic is a mixed bag

Some stars are thrilled to be playing for their country. Others won't be playing at all, for a variety of reasons.

March 04, 2009|Kevin Baxter

Johan Santana is in trouble.

The two-time Cy Young Award winner from Venezuela has let the tying run get to third base with reigning most valuable player Albert Pujols, a Dominican, stepping to the plate and David Ortiz on deck.

In the bullpen, record-setting closer Francisco Rodriguez begins to warm up.

That's the kind of drama Commissioner Bud Selig envisioned when he dreamed up the World Baseball Classic, a 16-country tournament in which the planet's best players would compete not for civic pride of a city, but for the honor of their homelands.

"What it does is it gives us an opportunity to combine two very powerful elements -- the sport of baseball and nationalism -- to promote the game," said Paul Archey, a senior vice-president for Major League Baseball and the commissioner's point man on the WBC.

That sounds good in theory. However, in practice the only way Santana will face Pujols this spring is if it happens in a Grapefruit League exhibition. That's because insurance policies guaranteeing the players' contracts will keep both out of the second WBC, which begins Thursday in Tokyo -- 1:30 a.m. PST -- and concludes March 23 at Dodger Stadium.

Other stars will be missing for a variety of reasons.

Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia and Phillies slugger Ryan Howard stayed in spring training rather than join Team USA. Canada will be without former 17-game winner Ryan Dempster. Japan won't have Hideki Matsui or Hiroki Kuroda. The Dominican is without Manny Ramirez, Vladimir Guerrero and Ervin Santana in addition to Pujols. And in the unlikely event Panama ever has a ninth-inning lead to protect, its closer won't be Mariano Rivera. Yet the tournament is hardly bereft of big league luster -- 52 All-Stars, eight rookies of the year and eight MVP winners are expected to play.

Promoting Major League Baseball was never the object anyway, organizers say. The WBC, which will be played in four countries and seven cities over 19 days, was created to boost baseball's presence on a global stage.

"This is about 16 countries," Archey said, "and each of those countries being able to field the best players from their country."

The need for a high-profile international tournament has never been greater. Later this year, the International Olympic Committee will take up baseball's appeal to be returned to the Olympic schedule after it was dropped from the 2012 London Games.

And though the sport can point to a crowded international schedule that includes a World Cup, world championships and regional competitions such as the Pan American Games, those events rarely draw the top players from participating countries -- something IOC President Jacques Rogge said is essential if baseball is to rejoin the Olympics.

"It's important for baseball to develop a truly international event like the World Baseball Classic," said Paul Seiler, executive director and CEO of Major League Baseball.

Not surprisingly, interest in the tournament appears to be highest in places where major league teams don't play.

In Japan, more than 40,000 fans turned out for their team's first workout and two exhibition games in Osaka sold out.

Tournament ticket sales are running ahead of 2006, when attendance reached nearly three-quarters of a million.

Which isn't to say everything has gone smoothly. Cuba and Venezuela, whose governments are at odds with the U.S., reportedly were miffed their bids to host first-round games were rejected in favor of Puerto Rico and Mexico City. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez also lashed out at major league teams who, by asking players to remain in training camp rather than play in the WBC, were taking away "the athlete's right and duty . . . to represent Venezuela."

Said Archey: "We're still going through growing pains. [But] the acceptance level, it might be more than I expected."

How the WBC is ultimately received will have little to do with star power or ticket sales and more to do with how the players view the competition.

"There is not one experience in baseball that is bigger than putting on the uniform of your country," said the Mets' Carlos Beltran, a four-time All-Star who will play for Puerto Rico.

"Just to have the chance to play for your country was something special," agreed Angels pitcher Kelvim Escobar, who played for Venezuela in the first WBC.

"I'll watch every game," added teammate John Lackey, who passed up a chance to pitch for the U.S. team at the Angels' request. "I think it's a great idea. I'm definitely disappointed I'm not going to do it.

"Would have been fun to wear USA across my chest."

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Staff writers Dylan Hernandez and Mike DiGiovanna contributed to this story.

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kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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World Baseball Classic

Round 1 begins Thursday

China vs. Japan

1:30 a.m., ESPN and MLB.TV

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OTHER GAMES

The U.S. plays Canada

on Saturday in Toronto

Mexico plays Sunday

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