Inaugural Classic lived up to its name

International tournament wildly popular in first go-round

Korea beat Japan twice in the '06 World Baseball Classic, but lost to it in the semifinals. (AP)

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The confetti, gleaming streamers and conga dancers were a sign of the times. New times. The 2006 inaugural World Baseball Classic was full of enthusiasm and surprises.

Team USA didn't make it out of the second round, but Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Japan and Korea did.

"Anything you do for the first time is not going to be perfect," Commissioner Bud Selig said. "But by any stretch of the imagination, this tournament exceeded my expectations in a myriad of ways. Absolutely."

The semis and finals at San Diego's PETCO Park were a festival of salsa, kimchi and sushi. The Japanese, after losing twice to the Koreans earlier in the tournament, prevailed in the finals, 10-6. Daisuke Matsuzaka, now with the Red Sox, was the MVP.

The tournament was well attended: 737,112 tickets were sold at its seven venues in Japan, Puerto Rico and the U.S., plus the final game attendance for Japan vs. Cuba was 42,696.

Even sans the presence of Team USA -- eliminated by Mexico at the end of the second round -- all three games in San Diego for the semifinals and finals sold out, with attendance totaling 126,603.

The finale was also wildly received in the competing Asian and Latin American nations, where television ratings for games involving the home countries reached astronomical proportions, including a 36 share in Japan for its semifinal game against Korea.

In the U.S., early skepticism about injuries, the Spring Training timing of the tournament and lack of national interest dissipated over the 17 days that the games were played. Hardcore journalists who didn't support the concept going in were sold on the tournament by the time it played itself out.

The fact that the Americans didn't prevail turned out to be a blessing of sorts, as baseball fans were treated to the distinct style of play offered by the four nations in the final games.

And though the tournament was long billed as the first internationally to include Major League players, the two teams that competed in the finals had only two on their rosters -- Japan's Ichiro Suzuki and Akinori Otsuka, who got the save in the title-winning game.

Here's the way it played itself out from March 3-20, 2006:

Pool A: Tokyo Dome Korea and Japan advanced, China and Chinese Taipei were eliminated.

For the Chinese, who hosted the baseball tournament in the Olympic Games this past summer, it was a first stab at big time international play, but a washout as they lost all three of their games by a combined score of 40-6. The Koreans dominated and won the bracket, 3-0, defeating Japan in the pivotal game on its home field, 3-2.

Pool B: Chase Field/Scottsdale Stadium Team USA and Mexico advanced, Canada and South Africa were eliminated.

Despite a lineup replete with Yankees such as Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Johnny Damon, Team USA struggled from the outset, beating Mexico, 2-0, losing to Canada and placing itself in a position where it had to score big against neophyte South Africa to qualify. Team USA did, winning, 17-0. Mexico romped over Canada, 9-1, and moved on to the second round.

Pool C: Hiram Bithorn Stadium Puerto Rico and Cuba advanced, The Netherlands and Panama were eliminated.

In a portend of things to come, previously dominant Cuba, an international power for decades, struggled to defeat Panama by a pair of runs in its opener and lost its final game to Puerto Rico by 10 runs. Puerto Rico, the host country, dominated, winning its three games by a combined score of 22-6. Panama lost out, dropping a 10-0 decision to the Dutch, which easily was one of the most stunning results of the tournament.

Pool D: Disney's Wide World of Sports The Dominican Republic and Venezuela advanced, Italy and Australia were eliminated.

The Dominican Republic defeated Venezuela, 11-5, in the opener as the Spring Training home of the Braves in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., rocked and rolled. That set the tone for a wild week of games. Venezuela easily vanquished Italy and Australia to move on, although the Aussies weren't pushovers. Baseball is growing Down Under, as the Dominicans and Venezuelans had to struggle to defeat the Australians in a pair of two-run games.

Pool 1, Angels Stadium Korea and Japan advanced, Team USA and Mexico were eliminated.

Korea went 3-0, defeating Japan in a taut 2-1 affair that was one of the best-played games of the tournament. The other three teams finished 1-2 in the pool. In Team USA's disputed 4-3 victory over Japan, umpire Bob Davidson negated a run and called out a Japanese baserunner for apparently leaving third base early on an eighth-inning sacrifice fly. It all came down to the U.S. and Mexico with the latter eliminating the U.S. in a 2-1 affair. Japan moved on because it won the three-way tiebreaker by allowing five runs in one more inning than the five runs the U.S. allowed in head-to-head competition involving the three tied teams. That rule has been changed for 2009, with double-elimination play replacing the round-robin format.

Pool 2, Hiram Bithorn Stadium The Dominican Republic and Cuba advanced, Venezuela and Puerto Rico were eliminated.

It was perhaps the most competitive bracket of the tournament, with three of the four teams chock full of Major League players. The Cubans lost again, this time to the Dominicans, and went to into the semis with a 4-2 record. The Dominicans had to fight all the way after being drubbed by host Puerto Rico, 7-1, in their opener. They did it by whipping Cuba and then Venezuela, 2-1, in the finale, which may have been the best game of the tournament.

In the seventh inning, Alberto Castillo raced home from third base on a passed ball by catcher Ramon Hernandez for the game- and bracket-winner. Cuba edged Puerto Rico, 4-3, to move on. Cuba manager Higinio Velez was ejected during the seventh inning of another exciting game. How tight was it? The Dominicans and Cuba finished the bracket 2-1, Venezuela and Puerto Rico 1-2.

Semifinals, PETCO Park Japan and Cuba advanced, The Dominican Republic and Korea were eliminated.

Game 1: Cuba 3, Dominican Republic 1 The Cubans cemented their 37th consecutive trip to the finals when competing in an international tournament. That includes four Olympic Games, 20 World Cups and 12 Intercontinental Cups. Previously, they had only lost the gold medal to Team USA in the 2000 Summer Olympics. Two Cuban pitchers shut down a Dominican offense that included Miguel Tejada, Albert Pujols, David Ortiz and Moises Alou on eight hits, all of them singles. As usual, none of the members of the Cuban national team had played in the Major Leagues. Starter Yadel Marti, then only 22, finished his run in the Classic with 12 2/3 scoreless innings, spanning four games (two starts).

Game 2: Japan 6, Korea 0 Korean fans waved flags and banners throughout the game. But it wasn't enough. Korea had already beaten their rivals twice in the tournament, and Japan wasn't about to let it happen again. Kosuke Fukudome, now with the Cubs, came off the bench in the seventh inning to hit a two-run, pinch-hit homer off Korean reliever Byung-Hyun Kim. Veteran Japanese starter Koji Uehara kept the Koreans in check and allowed only three hits, while striking out eight and walking none over seven innings to earn the crucial win. Korea was ousted from the tournament despite finishing with the best record (6-1).

Finals, PETCO Park Japan beats Cuba to win inaugural World Baseball Classic

Japan 10, Cuba 6 This had never happened before in international competition: the Japanese defeating Cuba in what amounted to a gold medal game.

A big reason for Japan's victory was Matsuzaka, who after shutting down the Cubans for four innings finished the tournament 3-0 with a 1.38 ERA -- two earned runs over 13 innings pitched. Heretofore, Japan had lost the gold medal game to Cuba in the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics and dropped a semifinal contest to the Cubans four years later in Australia. At Athens, Greece, in 2004, though the two teams didn't face in the medal round, Japan beat Cuba during pool play, with Matsuzaka pitching into the ninth inning to earn the win.

Ichiro was dropped to third in the lineup, and he finished the tournament hitting .364 (12-for-33) with hits in each of Japan's eight games. Japan and Cuba finished the tournament with identical 5-3 records.

Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.