World preparing to turn eyes on Classic

Sixteen teams excited for Thursday's start of international tournament

Daisuke Matsuzaka has been preparing this week with Team Japan at Tokyo Dome. (Toru Takahashi/AP)

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2009-03-02T05:16:26 2009-03-02T10:00:00 John Schlegel is a national reporter for MLB.com.]]> An international baseball tournament? In March? Using Major Leaguers? Did you say China and South Africa? What in the world ...?

Then March 2006 arrived, and the world -- the baseball world, at least -- changed forever. It changed, the believers and most of the skeptics would say in unison, for the better.

Going in, not even the players on the field knew what was in store for them. But the inaugural Classic quickly became an instant classic.

"Once you got there and you started to play, you realized how special it was," said Team USA shortstop Derek Jeter, among those determined to bring America's team to the top this time around in this showcase of its national pastime.

It's about to get special again. This week, it's time for World Baseball Classic 2.0.

With Pool A, led by defending champion Japan and 2008 Olympics champion Korea, getting a jump on things in Tokyo with games that begin early Thursday morning U.S. time, the 16-team global village of baseball is back. It's back with the same set of teams, a few new rules and one big difference: People now know to expect some top-flight baseball competition and a March dose of electricity normally reserved for October.

The element of pleasant surprise might be gone, in a sense. But the element of international intrigue remains. So does the basic fact that this tourney features some of the top talent on the planet, playing with national pride and passion that simply can't be found in other international baseball competitions.

All the evidence you need on the final point is summed up in a conversation catcher Carlos Ruiz, one of the heroes on the defending World Series champion Phillies, had when he received a phone call from Panama last week.

The voice on the other end of the line belonged to President Martin Torrijos, who wanted to know why Ruiz had passed on the chance to play for the Panamanian team.

"This year is very important for me," Ruiz explained.

"I understand, but we don't have any catchers," Torrijos replied. "You're our guy."

Suffice to say, Ruiz is reporting with the rest of the Panama squad to camp on Monday.

With stops in Japan, Canada, Mexico and Puerto Rico in the first round and then San Diego and Miami for the second round March 14-19, this year's Classic will finish off with semifinals and finals March 21-23 at Dodger Stadium, fittingly.

Home to the organization that integrated baseball with the signing of Jackie Robinson back in its Brooklyn days, the venerable ballpark has been emblematic of the melting pot that baseball has become in recent decades. It was from Dodger Stadium that baseball saw Fernandomania emerge, members of the early waves of players from the Dominican blossom and Hideo Nomo bring a different wave from Japan to the U.S.

"We're very honored to host a great event, a marquee event for baseball," Dodgers owner Frank McCourt said. "It's a way to bring the world together to enjoy the game. We've always been participants in bringing the game of baseball to other parts of the world, and now we get to host the world at Dodger Stadium. It's [kind of] cool."

A little more than three years ago, in the weeks and months leading up to its debut, the World Baseball Classic was still being viewed by many with skeptical eyes.

An international baseball tournament? In March? Using Major Leaguers? Did you say China and South Africa? What in the world ...?

Then March 2006 arrived, and the world -- the baseball world, at least -- changed forever. It changed, the believers and most of the skeptics would say in unison, for the better.

Going in, not even the players on the field knew what was in store for them. But the inaugural Classic quickly became an instant classic.

"Once you got there and you started to play, you realized how special it was," said Team USA shortstop Derek Jeter, among those determined to bring America's team to the top this time around in this showcase of its national pastime.

It's about to get special again. This week, it's time for World Baseball Classic 2.0.

With Pool A, led by defending champion Japan and 2008 Olympics champion Korea, getting a jump on things in Tokyo with games that begin early Thursday morning U.S. time, the 16-team global village of baseball is back. It's back with the same set of teams, a few new rules and one big difference: People now know to expect some top-flight baseball competition and a March dose of electricity normally reserved for October.

The element of pleasant surprise might be gone, in a sense. But the element of international intrigue remains. So does the basic fact that this tourney features some of the top talent on the planet, playing with national pride and passion that simply can't be found in other international baseball competitions.

All the evidence you need on the final point is summed up in a conversation catcher Carlos Ruiz, one of the heroes on the defending World Series champion Phillies, had when he received a phone call from Panama last week.

The voice on the other end of the line belonged to President Martin Torrijos, who wanted to know why Ruiz had passed on the chance to play for the Panamanian team.

"This year is very important for me," Ruiz explained.

"I understand, but we don't have any catchers," Torrijos replied. "You're our guy."

Suffice to say, Ruiz is reporting with the rest of the Panama squad to camp on Monday.

With stops in Japan, Canada, Mexico and Puerto Rico in the first round and then San Diego and Miami for the second round March 14-19, this year's Classic will finish off with semifinals and finals March 21-23 at Dodger Stadium, fittingly.

Home to the organization that integrated baseball with the signing of Jackie Robinson back in its Brooklyn days, the venerable ballpark has been emblematic of the melting pot that baseball has become in recent decades. It was from Dodger Stadium that baseball saw Fernandomania emerge, members of the early waves of players from the Dominican blossom and Hideo Nomo bring a different wave from Japan to the U.S.

"We're very honored to host a great event, a marquee event for baseball," Dodgers owner Frank McCourt said. "It's a way to bring the world together to enjoy the game. We've always been participants in bringing the game of baseball to other parts of the world, and now we get to host the world at Dodger Stadium. It's [kind of] cool."

First, the world has to earn a chance to play at Dodger Stadium. That begins with the Pool A games in Tokyo, being played earlier than the rest so the two teams that advance to the second round can acclimate to the time-zone difference between Japan and the U.S. They'll hold brief camps in Arizona before traveling to San Diego to meet the top two teams from Pool B, featuring perennial amateur power Cuba and local first-round favorite Mexico.

Team USA is among the squads gathering in Florida and Arizona starting Monday for short camps that will set up the pools being held in the Western Hemisphere. The U.S. and the rest will play exhibitions against Major League teams throughout this week leading up to the tournament.

Pool C, featuring the U.S. and Venezuela, will begin in Toronto on Saturday, the same day Pool D, featuring potential powerhouse Dominican Republic and host Puerto Rico, begins in San Juan. Pool B will begin in Mexico City on Sunday, with Mexico and Cuba the favorites to advance.

The inaugural World Baseball Classic made a global impression, and it was clear that baseball's innovative gathering of professional and amateur stars from all over the planet was an idea with staying power.

It was Team USA's tradition and superstars, Japan's deep pool of professional talent and Cuba's amazing amateur tradition. It was South Africa playing Canada at Scottsdale Stadium -- in baseball. It was Korea and Japan squaring off in Anaheim with enough electricity and fervor to light up the Main Street Electrical Parade across the freeway at Disneyland.

And, in the end, it was Japanese closer Akinori Otsuka punching out a victorious yell at PETCO Park.

For baseball, it was a revelation not only for the surprising level of competition for a month usually reserved for exhibitions, but also for the chord it struck with fans of all nationalities and descents.

The chord it struck in the U.S. might have been a more of a warning bell.

USA manager Davey Johnson doesn't need a whole lot of pep talks stored up for his squad, which by all accounts disappointed by winning just one of three games in the second round and missing out on the semifinal round, which instead featured Japan, runner-up Cuba, Korea and the Dominican Republic.

"Everybody I've talked to, some guys like the first-timers, they're real pumped up because they saw what happened a couple of years ago, and they don't want that to happen again," said Johnson. "Nobody wants to go back early."

Of course not. Everybody wants to be on top of the world, and once again teams from six continents have that chance.

It's an opportunity like none other to strut their baseball stuff in front of the world.

"This is going to be a great experience to be representing my country," said Korean outfielder Shin-Soo Choo, who made a splash in the Major Leagues last season with the Indians. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience."

Or, actually, twice in a lifetime now for the baseball world anticipating World Baseball Classic 2.0.

John Schlegel is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.