The 2009 World Baseball Classic is underway! Last time there were all sorts of off-the-field controversies, but this time it appears to be all about good competition. Last night I watched a remarkably improved Chinese team eliminate Taiwan behind American-born Pirates farmhand Raymond Chang, and the U.S.A. just beat Canada in a 6-5 nailbiter in front of a packed house at Rogers Centre (née Skydome) in Toronto. The biggest surprise so far is the surprising 3-2 upset of the Dominican Republic by the Netherlands. Don't fall asleep against the weaker teams!There are some welcome changes to the format this year. The teams are the same, but instead of a round-robin, the pool play is double-elimination, which eliminates the bizarre tie-breaker rules from last time. What hasn't been remarked upon much is that the venues are more international this year. In 2006, two of the four pools played in spring-training facilities in Arizona and Florida, whereas this time the opening round games are in Canada, Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Japan before moving to the U.S. proper in the second round. What's not welcome is the international extra-inning rule putting runners on base automatically in the hopes of scoring runs, but thankfully this doesn't kick in until the 13th inning, so it probably won't be an issue.
And of course, the participation of 16 teams from 6 continents is a stinging rebuke to the International Olympic Committee's elimination of baseball and softball from the Olympics, as well as any other idiots who think baseball is somehow only an American sport. The semifinals and final game are at Dodger Stadium March 21-23, and I plan to be there, regardless of which teams are playing. Who wants to come with me?
UPDATE: Wow, Pudge Rodriguez is having a 4-hit, 4-RBI, 3-run, 2-homers-a-double-and-a-stolen-base day. And he's still unsigned this year!