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WBC gets new look / MLB announces 1st-round venues, format for 2009 Classic

by Jim Allen (Mar 25, 2008)

Major League Baseball's world tournament will be a bit more international the second time around, MLB executives said Monday at a Tokyo Press conference announcing plans for the 2009 World Baseball Classic.

"It's very appropriate that we're making the announcement here since Japan was the winner of the inaugural World Baseball Classic," said Bob DuPuy, MLB's president and COO.

Although all 16 nations from the 2006 field were invited back for the second edition, all four first-round groups will play outside the United States this time. Tokyo Dome will be the Pool A venue, joining San Juan's Hiram Bithorn Stadium as the other remaining first-round venue from 2006. Mexico City's Estadio Foro Sol and Toronto's Rogers Centre will host the remaining first-round pools.

Defending champion Japan, 2006 semifinalist South Korea, Taiwan and China have all been invited to begin the tournament in Tokyo on March 5.

Nippon Professional Baseball and the Japanese players union have yet to accept MLB's invitation.

Within the groups, the format has changed from a round robin to double elimination, eliminating tie-breaking formulas. While the total number of games will stay the same, it will require games be played out to their conclusion--a concern for Japanese organizers unaccustomed to the messy details of marathon extra-inning games.

"We need to account for all these details. What happens if a game needs to be continued the next day?" Kazuo Hasegawa, the secretary general of the Japanese commissioner's office, said to reporters before the press conference. "If that happens, what are we going to do about the tickets, about the broadcast rights? All that needs to be worked out."

In the first WBC, DuPuy and his staff were forced to work late into the night in both San Juan and Anaheim, Calif., to determine different tie-breaking permutations before the quarterfinal rounds' final games.

"We wanted to settle it on the field and not on a tiebreaker of runs scored or head-to-head competition," said Paul Archey, MLB's senior vice president for international business operations, who called the 2006 tiebreakers "not only confusing to the players...but to the organizers."

Last time, Japan advanced to the semifinals thanks to a tiebreaker after finishing its second-round pool as part of a three-way tie with the United States and Mexico.

The new format also provides for knockout games, as teams with one loss will play each other in a loser's bracket. However, because the two remaining teams in each group will advance regardless of the result of the pool finale between them, the outcome of that game will only determine seeding in the next round.

Following criticism of the original format, which allowed Japan and South Korea to play each other three times but precluded the chance of their meeting in the final, the semifinal format has also been altered.

Now the winner of each second-round pool will meet the runnerup from the other pool. Had this format been in place in 2006, South Korea, whose only loss of the tournament came in the semifinals to Japan, would have had to beat Cuba to advance to the tournament final against the winner between Japan and the Dominican Republic.

MLB is also in negotiation with the International Baseball Federation and the major league umpires to assure qualified crews for the tournament. Last time, MLB was unable to meet the demands of its umps and had to go to a backup plan. The eventual setup was criticized after American umpire Bob Davidson made three controversial second-round rulings in the United States' favor.

Still, the turnout for the final three games in San Diego was startling even with the host U.S. missing the boat. Fans packed the final, in which Japan beat Cuba--a game in which just two major leaguers played.

"The excitement in the arenas...far exceeded anything we expected," said American catcher Jason Varitek. "The experience was phenomenal."


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