Japan's baseball team owners say they may keep their country out of the inaugural World Baseball Classic in March, souring baseball's effort to create a marquee international tournament to showcase the sport's emergence as a global game.

The Japanese owners oppose some of the arrangements made by Major League Baseball for what would be the first competitive matchup of the best players from the top baseball nations. The dispute is largely over how revenue from the 16-country tournament would be shared, Japanese baseball sources say, though the Japanese owners are also rebelling against what they see as MLB's disproportionate control over the event.

MLB executives say the competition will go ahead with or without the Japanese and are looking into moving games scheduled for Japan to Taiwan and South Korea.

But there are worries that fans would regard a tournament without one of baseball's major powers and stars such as the Mariners' Ichiro Suzuki and the Yankees' Hideki Matsui as something less than a Spring Classic.

"We really don't know what their objections are; it's hard to figure," said Paul Archey, MLB's senior vice president for international business, who says the league believed it had a deal on Japanese participation last fall.

Archey will travel to Japan this week to meet with Japanese baseball officials and "try to iron out the issues."

"But I wouldn't call it a negotiation," he said.

* PINIELLA FRUSTRATED WITH OWNERS: Devil Rays Manager Lou Piniella, wearying after a recent run of blowout losses and embarrassing performances, ripped the last-place team's ownership yesterday for not caring about winning now.

Piniella said the New York-based owners who bought a controlling share of the perennially poor-performing franchise a year ago don't seem to care about Tampa Bay's current on-field product.

"They're not interested in the present, they're interested in the future. And that's their right," he said before yesterday's game in Pittsburgh. "But when other teams are getting better presently, you're going to get your butts beat and that's exactly what's happening."

Piniella's remarks came barely 12 hours after an 18-2 loss to the Pirates, the sixth time since May 29 the Devil Rays have allowed 10 or more runs in a loss. They were outscored 25-4 in the first two games of the interleague series in Pittsburgh and had given up 50 runs in their previous four games before winning yesterday, 7-5, in 13 innings.

"I'm not going to take responsibility for this," Piniella said of the Devil Rays' 21-42 record, worst in the majors. "If I had been given a $40 million or $45 million payroll, I'd stand up like a man and say it's my fault. Well, I'm not going to do it. So if you want answers about what's going on here, you call the new ownership group and let them give them to you."

The Devil Rays began the season with a payroll of slightly less than $30 million, about $7 million lower than any other major league team. Only the Pirates ($38.1 million) and Royals ($36.88 million) had payrolls below $40 million.

* CHOI'S BIG DAY: Hee Seop Choi homered three times for the Dodgers, in the first, fourth and sixth innings off Twins starter Brad Radke.

Two of Choi's homers came on the first pitch, including a line drive that just cleared the fence in right field in the sixth to provide the winning run in the Dodgers' 4-3 victory.

Each time, fans erupted in chants of "Hee Seop Choi."

"Unbelievable," Choi said. "The best game of my career."

Choi had six homers in 144 at-bats this season prior to Friday. Now he has six in his last 11 at-bats -- including five solo shots. Choi also homered twice against the Twins in a 6-5 victory Friday night, and once in a 5-3 loss Saturday night.

-- From News Services

Hee Seop Choi follows through on his third homer of the game, and sixth in his last 11 at-bats.