Mike Piazza may have changed Major League uniforms, but he'll don Italy's in March. (Elaine Thompson/AP)
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PHOENIX -- Welcome to the international show.
Two years in the planning, the inaugural World Baseball Classic will begin Thursday night (Friday in Japan) in Tokyo Dome when Korea faces Chinese Taipei. Later in the day at Chase Field in Phoenix, Team USA will meet the media and have its first workout, while elsewhere in Florida and Arizona the rest of the squads in the 16-team field that opens play on March 7 will also get together.
By the time the U.S. plays Mexico at the Chase, the Dominican Republic faces Venezuela at Disney Wide World of Sports, and Panama meets Puerto Rico in Hiram Bithorn Stadium, the Asian pool will have been decided and the Classic will already be in full swing.
"Frankly, I'm very excited about the prospects," said Paul Archey, Major League Baseball's senior vice president of international business operations. "As we get closer and closer, you see the interest level. I couldn't be happier about the exposure and we haven't even thrown a pitch. It's the first time we've had this event and we'll sell as many tickets as the Winter Olympics this year. That's a phenomenal accomplishment, as far as I'm concerned."
MLB, in conjunction with the Players Association and the International Baseball Federation, is staging the first international tournament to include Major League players.
The prospects of seeing Albert Pujols (Dominican), Derek Jeter (U.S.), Ichiro Suzuki (Japan), Jason Bay (Canada), Mike Piazza (Italy), Mark Mulder (the Netherlands), Ivan Rodriguez (Puerto Rico), Carlos Lee (Panama), Bobby Abreu (Venezuela), Vinny Castilla (Mexico) and Justin Huber (Australia), play in the uniform of the their respective nation or commonwealth, has evidently had mass appeal.
Tournament directors Archey and Gene Orza, the chief operating officer of the union, expect MLB to sell 800,000 tickets for the 39 games. In San Diego, where all the tickets at 42,000-seat PETCO Park have been long sold out for the two semifinal games on March 18 and the final on March 20, ticket requests came in from 40 states and 21 countries, said Sandy Alderson, the Padres chief executive and the former MLB vice president whose bailiwick included the globalization of the sport.
Meanwhile, there are nearly 4,000 credential requests from around the world and the games will be available on television and radio worldwide to the largest audience ever to witness this type of baseball event.
In comparison, Olympic baseball, which has been a medal sport since 1992 and was ousted last year from the 2012 London games, is not even shown to a mass audience in the U.S.
"This tournament is going to be a whole lot of fun," Orza said. "It's going to be fun to watch Johan Santana in this uniform (Venezuela) pitching against David Ortiz in that uniform (Dominican). It's just going to be an exciting kind of event."
The 24 first-round games will be staged at five venues of various shapes and sizes in Tokyo, Phoenix, Scottsdale, Ariz., Lake Buena Vista, Fla., and San Juan, Puerto Rico, making this a truly global program. Tokyo aside, the games in the other venues are slated for March 7-10.
In Tokyo, the top two teams among Japan, Korea, China and Chinese Taipei will travel to Angel Stadium in Anaheim for games from March 12-16 against the winners of the Arizona pool: the U.S., Mexico, Canada and South Africa. The two winners in Anaheim play in the semifinals at San Diego.
In San Juan, the top two teams among Puerto Rico, Cuba, Panama and the Netherlands remain at Hiram Bithorn Stadium from March 12-15 to play the winners of the Lake Buena Vista pool: the Dominicans, Venezuela, Italy and Australia. Likewise, the two winners in the second round meet in the semifinals at San Diego.
In the first two rounds, teams play a game against each opponent and the winners are decided by record and head-to-head results.
But the four survivors face single-elimination pressure in each of the last three games.
A dream final four could include the Dominicans against the Cubans, international baseball's preeminent power, in a 3 ET semifinal game on March 18 at PETCO Park. Follow that with Japan vs. the U.S. in the 10 p.m. ET nightcap.
Finally, it could be the U.S. vs. the Dominicans in a winner takes all finale at 9 p.m. ET on March 20 for the first Classic championship.
Then it will all be done again in 2009 and every four years after that.
"I couldn't be more pleased," Archey said about all aspects of the prospective tournament. "We set out to include the best players in the game and we've accomplished that."
Some of the initial excitement leading into the tournament has been tempered a bit by the veteran players who have dropped out or declined to play, because of injuries or various other reasons. That list includes Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants, Pedro Martinez of the New York Mets, Hideki Matsui of the New York Yankees, Manny Ramirez of the Boston Red Sox and Luis Gonzalez of the Arizona Diamondbacks.
But when the first pitch is thrown on Friday, all that will be behind us.
"The success of the tournament can be measured by one thing and one thing principally," Orza said. "And that is to the degree players come out of it telling their follow players that it was a lot of fun and they made a mistake by not playing."
Again, welcome to the international show.