Japan agrees to play in WBC

Japan agrees to play in WBC

Japan has agreed to participate in next year's inaugural World Baseball Classic, removing a major hurdle that had been preventing the 16-country tournament from moving forward.

Nippon Professional Baseball delivered a four-paragraph letter with that news to Major League Baseball International's Tokyo office, an MLB spokesman in New York confirmed on Friday.

"We are pleased to tell you that we accept your invitation to the 2006 World Baseball Classic," the letter delivered on Saturday, Tokyo time, said in part.

It was addressed to Paul Archey, MLB's vice president of international baseball operations and Gene Orza, the chief operating officer of the players association, and signed by Kazuo Hasegawa, the executive secretary for the Commissioner's office of Japanese baseball.

The annoucement came after months of negotiations, including face-to-face meetings last month in New York between officials from MLB and the players association with their counterparts from NPB and its union. Approval of the Japanese players lifted the final impediment toward their participation in what will be the first international baseball tournament to include a select group of Major League players.

"I am pleased that Nippon Professional Baseball and its players' association have agreed to participate in the first ever World Baseball Classic," Commissioner Bud Selig said in a statement. "Japanese players are among the best in the world and their participation in this event is important to the global growth of the sport."

The announcement assures that the Asian Qualifying Round will be staged in the Tokyo Dome from March 3-6, opening the 17-day tournament. The other three opening-round series will begin on March 8 in Phoenix, Florida and Puerto Rico.

Japan will host the Pool A competition that includes Korea, China and Chinese Taipei, with the top two finishers traveling to the United States for the second round, beginning March 13 against the qualifiers from Pool B, which includes Team USA.

The OK from the Japanese leaves Cuba as the only nation yet to accept an invitation to appear in the tournament, which is scheduled to run through March 20.

Cuba has its own set of special circumstances and needs U.S. State Department clearance to come to the U.S. Cuba, which is the lone Communist nation in the western hemisphere, is also concerned about players from its national team seeking political asylum in the U.S. during the tournament.

Though 270 Major League players will be eligible to play in the tournament, none will be eligible for the Cuban team since all Major League players who are native Cubans have already been given asylum elsewhere.

As far as venues for the games go, MLB has been listening to bids from franchises in Southern California, Arizona and Texas to host the semifinals and finals in Major League stadiums. An announcement on that is expected shortly.

Owners from NPB that control the two Japan leagues had agreed to participate in the World Baseball Classic, but the Japanese players issued grave reservations, voting in July to shun the tournament. Their main concerns were the time of year the tournament is being played and having more representation in the decision-making process when the WBC is played again in 2009.

The NPB union has been given assurances that it will have major input in those decisions as the tournament moves forward.

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.