This Wednesday the qualifying rounds for the 2013 World Baseball Classic will start at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Florida, the spring training home of the St. Louis Cardinals and the Miami Marlins. I know this may come as a surprise to some of you, but teams representing South Africa, Israel, France and Spain will take the field to win one of the final four spots in the Finals this March. The next day in Regensberg, Germany, teams representing Canada, Germany, Great Britain and the Czech Republic will start a tournament for the second of four spots. Two more qualifying rounds will take place in Panama and Taiwan in November.
For those of you who have forgotten or who may have previously simply not cared, the World Baseball Classic (WBC) was Commissioner Bud Selig's idea to create an international tournament akin to soccer's World Cup, where teams representing the different nations would compete for a true baseball World Championship.
It was a great idea. There are still logistical problems to be worked out and it hasn't come anywhere close to its full potential yet, but the idea of the best players in the world playing for national pride and promoting the game worldwide is the best idea the Commissioner has ever had. It's still a reasonably small affair compared to similar championships in other sports, but don't forget the FIFA World Cup was a pretty small affair the first few times it was played as well. It's also hard for me to believe anyone who had seen Korea's dramatic victory over Japan at Angels Stadium in 2006 or the Netherlands shocking upset of the Dominican Republic at Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan could think this isn't good for the sport.
Japan has won both World Baseball Classics so far.
While interest in the tournament in the United States so far has been hit or miss, there is little doubt that there is interest abroad. Last year, the International Baseball Federation (IBAF) officially declared the WBC to be "Baseball's World Championship" and demoted their own Baseball World Cup to being an Under-21 tournament. In addition, the baseball federations of the nations that had been excluded in the first two WBC competitions declared that they too wanted a chance to compete.
So this year, twelve additional nations, selected by the IBAF, will be allowed the chance to play their way into the final 16 teams that will compete for the championship in March. The four countries that did not win a game in 2009: Canada, South Africa, Panama and Chinese Taipei, were relegated to one of four four-team qualifying tournaments. That's what is starting on Wednesday.
These qualifying tournaments are going to be low-key affairs, except to the players and the national baseball federations involved. Still, I'm going to cover them for you anyway. Obviously teams like Canada are going to have to try to qualify without current major league players like Ryan Dempster and Joey Votto. Israel is fielding a team of mostly Jewish-American players from the minor leagues and a couple of retired major leaguers. Germany is mostly native players with only a few "Passport Players" from America whereas France is going with an entirely home-grown lineup.
Tomorrow I'll have a preview of the four national teams competing in Florida, followed by another one the next day on the teams in Germany. Warning: My scouting report on France is going to be pretty thin.
None of these countries expect to hoist the silver baseball trophy at AT&T Park this March. That's not the point. Above all, the World Baseball Classic is about spreading a love of the game. For many of these players from throughout the world, even a chance to play on a major league spring training diamond is a dream come true.