Baseball's International Final Four comes to California

The World Baseball Classic, in its third go-around, has reached its semifinal stage, starting Sunday evening at 6 pm at AT&T Park in San Francisco. Baseball's attempt to create a global event still has a long way to go to raise the profile of the sport beyond countries where it is already popular, but it is still an interesting way to pass the time during the long slow buildup to the regular season in spring training.

Japan, winners of the previous two WBCs in 2006 and 2009, is back again in the semifinals and will face Puerto Rico, who eliminated the United States on Friday. The other semifinal (on Monday) will pit the Dominican Republic, the only team with a perfect record (6-0) through the tournament against the surprising team from the Kingdom of the Netherlands, who advanced to San Francisco after beating Cuba twice in Japan.

The event is far from perfect, as it is not held when players are in peak condition, and the level of competition is quite uneven in the early rounds, necessitating a "mercy rule" that ends games early if teams take leads of 10 runs by the 7th inning. However, the novelty of seeing some of the different styles the way baseball is played throughout the world is quite enlightening.

Japan and the Dominican Republic are the favorites to play in the final on Tuesday, but with each semifinal being a one and done affair, it would take just one bad pitching performance to knock out the favorites. Japan trailed in its opening game of the tournament to Brazil, 2-0, before rallying in the 8th inning for a 5-2 win. The D.R. team trailed 4-0 early in a second round game against Italy, before pulling out a 5-4 win.

The Dominican Republic team definitely has the most well-known group of players. The starting shortstops for the Dodgers and Angels, Hanley Ramirez and Erick Aybar, are both on the D.R. team. And both of them have seen limited time at that position because Toronto Blue Jays shortstop Jose Reyes is also on the team. Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano, Cleveland catcher Carlos Santana, and Tampa Bay closer Fernando Rodney are also participating.

Japan's team does not feature any U.S. based players this year. Ichiro Suzuki, trying to make a favorable impression on the Yankees in spring training, opted out. The Japanese were still able to fill out their roster with a collection of all stars from its own league. Not many people in North America have seen Japan play as their first and second round games took place while most of us here were sleeping.

The Puerto Rican team has two Major Leaguers of note in outfielder Carlos Beltran and catcher Yadier Molina. But, Puerto Rico has made it all the way to the semifinals thanks to the pitching of a group of pitchers who are mostly career minor leaguers. Nelson Figueroa, a 38-year old who has had an unimpressive big league career, managed to hold the USA to one hit in six innings on Friday night. Figueroa's biggest claim to fame may be that he is the greatest baseball player ever to come out of Brandeis University.

The Dutch team prefers to go by "The Kingdom of the Netherlands." This probably makes the team feel less guilty that the majority of its players are from Curacao, rather than the European nation of the Netherlands (although some of them are). You can get an interesting explanation of the organization of the country in this video.

The Netherlands team has become one of the tournament's favorite teams to watch because: 1) a lot of people love to say the Dutch word for baseball which is honkbal and 2) the roster is loaded with players with interesting names, as noted by Emma Span of Sports on Earth.

Local fans may find it hard to root for a team that has Andruw Jones on it (after the tournament is over, he will head to Japan to play for the Rakuten Golden Eagles), but sometimes you have to get past the fact that the Dodgers are still paying Jones millions of dollars for having one of the worst seasons most people had ever seen. However, Dodger fans will have a rooting interest as reliever Kenley Jansen will be joining the team for the semifinal, improving the quality of the Dutch bullpen by about 1000%.

So far ticket sales in San Francisco have been a little slow for the final three games and deep discounts are available. If I could go, I would be up in San Francisco to take in all three games. Instead, I will settle for the MLB Network coverage, which features innumerable showings of the Budweiser commercial about the guy who is way too friendly with a Clydesdale, and announcers who are amazed to find out that Brazil is actually a very large country. (The M in MLB Network actually stands for "Mercator Projection.")

I went to the 2009 Final at Dodger Stadium (a crowd of over 54,000) between Japan and South Korea. It was one of the most intense, yet enjoyable, baseball games I have ever attended. The crowd, which was predominantly Korean, cheered EVERY pitch. There was almost no booing. After South Korea had tied the game with 2 outs in the 9th against Yu Darvish, now of the Texas Rangers, Ichiro drove in the winning runs in the top of the 10th to give Japan a 5-3 win.
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This year's tournament has not been free from discord. Canada and Mexico were involved in an ugly bench-clearing brawl during their first round game. American sportswriters grumbled about players opting not to play (such as Mike Trout, Clayton Kershaw, and Justin Verlander) or not taking the tournament as seriously as the other teams. Venezuela had a team loaded with major leaguers, including Miguel Cabrera and Pablo Sandoval, and were bounced out in the first round without much of a fight.

The most attractive final would match Japan, who takes the competition very seriously and somewhat business-like, against the Dominican Republic, a team that is not hesitant to display its emotions on the field after any small success, contravening some of baseball's hallowed "unwritten" rules.

But it's baseball. Or beisbol. Or honkbal. Or yakyu. Stuff happens.

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