For Club and Country

When the Boston Red Sox's Dustin Pedroia and Yankee Derek Jeter team up for a powerful double-play combo for Team USA, while Ichiro and Daisuke Matsuzaka unite for defending champion Team Japan, it is time to take the so-far trashed World Baseball Classic seriously.

The second World Baseball Classic, which baseball organizers and fans hope will do for their sport what the World Cup does for football/soccer, gets underway March 5 in Tokyo, when 2006 defending champion Team Japan meets the baseball nine from China.

The World Classic is the first international baseball contest to feature large numbers of Major League (MLB) players, who normally skip the Olympic Games since it is held in the middle of their season. (Baseball was dropped from Olympic Games and baseball promoters hope the success of the Classic will help to win reinstatement.)

The world's premier baseball powerhouse, the United States, took a lackadaisical attitude toward the event during the first World Baseball Classic held in 2006, and was eliminated in the second round by Mexico, finishing sixth. This time they say they are planning to play serious ball.

Davey Johnson, who will manage the 2009 Team USA , says he was only interested in recruiting players who want to win, not a bunch of all-stars interested in preening before the crowds. He had planned to field a lean team of perhaps 24 players instead of a full complement of 28 to avoid the temptation to rotate star players in and out of the games simply for exposure.

Johnson told American sportswriters that he wanted players willing to put in nine innings at full speed even in early March, when most Major League players are just limbering up for spring training. In the event, the USA will field 27 players.

Team USA will have such players as Derek Jeter of the New York Yankees, Dustin Pedroia of the Boston Red Sox (American League Most Valuable Player for 2008) and Jake Peavy of the San Diego Padres. Alex Rodriguez, perhaps the world's most famous - or notorious - Major Leaguer, who played for Team USA in 2006, will play for the Dominican Republic this year.

Nobody has had to build a fire under the Japanese. Excitement about the impending Classic has been building in Japan since the end of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing (where the Japanese team returned without winning a medal.)

Whereas the USA team won't meet together as a team until March 2 in Clearwater, Fla., five days before their first game against Canada on March 7, Team Japan has been practicing together since mid-February in the southern town of Miyazaki, even before the final cut was made, drawing large crowds and hordes of news media.

The team naturally boasts Ichiro who has become one of the Classic's biggest advocates. In his view the tournament isn't just another exhibition game but a real competition to decide who is the best among the best. "I feel a responsibility to help nurture this tournament into an important piece of baseball‘s fabric for future generations."

The Japanese team brings together Major League stars such as Ichiro, star outfielder for the Seattle Mariners, ace Boston Red Sox pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka and Kosuke Fukudome, the star outfielder for the Chicago Cubs together with Japanese league standouts such as Yu Darvish, the Japanese-Iranian pitcher for the Nippon Ham Fighters.

Team Japan is managed by Tatsunori Hara, Japan's winningest manager, who is the current manager of last year's Central League champions, the Yomiuri Giants. The Americans, though becoming late converts to the Classic, are not yet willing to allow any active duty managers away from spring training. Johnson is retired.

If the Americans have any serious reservations about the Classic it is worry about injuries. After all, March is early to be playing serious baseball. St Louis Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols bowed out citing concerns over elbow surgery he had after the 2008 World Series and difficulty in getting insurance coverage.

Nevertheless, virtually every team in the competition is liberally sprinkled with Major League players, opting, like the famous World Cup soccer stars, to play for their native lands in international competition. Of the 448 players on the 16 teams, nearly half of them have some Major League affiliation.

Of the American professional franchises, the New York Mets have contributed 15 players, the Boston Red Sox 14, The Seattle Mariners and Minnesota Twins 12 each. Some of the countries could hardly field teams without MLB players. Taiwan, which plays under the name Chinese Taipei, has nine Major Leaguers on its roster.

Culling through the team rosters shows just how much baseball has gone global in recent years. Most fans know about the Japanese stars, such as Ichiro and Daisuke. But how many knew that nearly a dozen Chinese and Koreans play for Major League Teams (or at least are under contract)?

They include Chen Hung-wan of the Chicago Cubs, playing for Taiwan; Choo Shin-soo of the Cleveland Indians, playing for South Korea; Ni Fu-te of the Detroit Tigers, playing for Taiwan and Lo Chia-jen of the Houston Astros, playing for Taiwan.

Two young players, Liu Kai, a pitcher, and catcher Zhang Zhenwang, are from mainland China. They were signed in 2007 by the New York Yankees becoming the first baseball players from the People's Republic of China ever to sign a MLB contract (they don't play for the Yankees yet). Naturally, they will play for China in the Classic.

The Chinese of course, are rank newcomers to baseball (the game was banned during the Cultural Revolution as an example of Western bourgeois decadence) and have not made much of an international splash as yet. China went 0-3 in the 2006 Classic and 1-6 in the 2008 Olympic Games.

Still, there were some sweet moments. In losing the Classic they held mighty Korea (2008 gold medalists) to a tie for 11 innings. Their one victory in the Olympic Games was over arch rival Chinese Taipei, and Chinese catcher Wang Wei (also of the Seattle Mariners) holds the distinction of hitting the first-ever home run in a Classic game - against Japan.

The 16 countries in the Classic are the same ones chosen three years ago as representing "the best baseball playing nations." They are: Australia, Canada, China, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Italy, Japan, Korea, Mexico, the Netherlands, Panama, Puerto Rico, South Africa, Taiwan, The United States and Venezuela.

The Classic is already looking like it may become a big success. Even skeptics were impressed by the interest shown in the 2006, where more than 700,000 spectators attended the 39 games. This year all games will be televised, and the prize money has been increased from $8 million to $14 million (half goes to develop the game in the winning country).

This year the penultimate game will be held in Dodger Stadium on March 27 in Los Angeles which should boost American interest. That will be especially true if a fired-up Team USA is on the field. They will be if Davey Johnson has anything to say about it.