The 16-team field is set for the second running of the World Baseball Classic, which is scheduled for March of next year. Though it is exactly the same as the inaugural edition in 2006, it may be the last time the governing bodies of the tournament restrict the competition to that few teams. Under consideration for 2013 is an expansion of the field to 24 countries and territories with qualifying rounds as a preface to reach the main competition. "As the level of baseball continues to rise worldwide, it is essential that the World Baseball Classic expand its field to give the growing number of formidable teams the opportunity to participate," said Paul Archey, Major League Baseball's senior vice president of international business operations. "In accordance with the tournament's goal of growing and enhancing interest in the game, the Steering Committee has strongly endorsed the expansion of the competition for the 2013 event."
But that's down the road. Next year's field will again feature defending title winner Japan, runner-up Cuba, the U.S., Dominican Republic, Korea, Mexico, Puerto Rico and Venezuela -- all teams that qualified for the second round last time and thus received automatic berths for '09. It was announced on Tuesday that Australia, Canada, China, Chinese Taipei, Italy, Netherlands, Panama, and South Africa were sent invitations. "There has been significant improvement in the level of play internationally and indeed, Major League ranks include even more players from across the world," said Gene Orza, chief operating officer of the Players' Association. "The 16 teams selected best represent the breadth of quality play around the globe, which meets a key tournament objective, showing the world how far baseball has come internationally. If you liked the tournament last time around, wait 'til you see her this time." The venues are expected to be announced next month with all four first-round competitions being played outside the U.S., which will host Round 2, the semi-finals and finals, as it did in 2006. Attendance for the '06 tournament at its seven venues was 737,112 tickets sold -- a major coup, considering the fact that the Asian bracket didn't reach the 80 percent capacity in Tokyo Dome that was originally projected. The semi-finals and finals were sold out at San Diego's 45,000-seat PETCO Park, undoubtedly a front-runner to host the Classic's finale again in 2009. It was the first time that all Major League players were allowed to represent their native lands in an international baseball tournament. The baseball competition in the Summer Olympics, which is slated for Beijing in August, includes non-25-man roster MLB players only. In 2006, fans enjoyed seeing the likes of Vladimir Guerrero and David Ortiz play for the Dominican, Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter for the U.S. and Ichiro Suzuki play for Japan. The games between Latin American teams staged in both Orlando, Fla., and Puerto Rico exhibited rich flavor with flags waving, congas beating, and conga lines forming in the stands. Japan vanquished Cuba, 10-6, in the finals and Japanese pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka, who now pitches for the Red Sox, was named the tournament's Most Valuable Player. "The intensity in the stands as well as the intensity on the playing field was absolutely remarkable, and I'm not sure that going into it you could have felt that," Commissioner Bud Selig said at the time regarding the legacy of the Classic. "I'm very confident that this will be the platform we use to take this sport internationally to the dimension that I want to take it and believe that we will." Next month, MLB will stage two international baseball events. The Padres will play the Dodgers in exhibition games on March 15-16 in Beijing, opening a country of 1.5 billion people to Major League Baseball. A little more than a week later, the A's and defending World Series champion Boston will travel to Japan to open the regular season in Tokyo Dome on March 25-26. It's the third time MLB is opening its season in Japan and the fifth time it's doing so internationally.
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.