Before a backdrop of 16 national flags, baseball officials on Monday unveiled details of next March's inaugural World Baseball Classic, highlighted by a star-studded list of 177 players who have committed to play in a tournament described by Commissioner of Baseball Bud Selig as "the most important international baseball event ever staged."
The list of committed players, which continues to grow by the day, includes almost all of the sport's most luminous stars, including Roger Clemens, Derek Jeter and Barry Bonds of the U.S. team and Albert Pujols, Manny Ramirez and Pedro Martinez of the Dominican Republic. Alex Rodriguez also has committed to play, but has yet to decide whether to play for the U.S. or the Dominican team.
"This is a very big day for the sport," Selig said, "and a very, very crucial one."
The Classic will feature 15 countries, plus Puerto Rico, spread out over four pools, with first-round games played in Tokyo, Orlando, Phoenix and San Juan, Puerto Rico, beginning on March 3, and culminating with a championship game on March 20 in San Diego. Participating nations include China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, Canada, Mexico, South Africa, Cuba, Netherlands, Panama, Australia, Italy and Venezuela.
Thus far, four Washington Nationals players -- Jose Vidro (Puerto Rico), Brian Schneider (U.S.), Luis Ayala (Mexico) and Chad Cordero (U.S.) -- have committed to play, and Livan Hernandez, a Cuban defector, has expressed interest in playing for Puerto Rico, where he maintains a residence. The Baltimore Orioles' contingent at this point includes Miguel Tejada (Dominican Republic), Luis Matos (Puerto Rico), Erik Bedard (Canada), Adam Loewen (Canada), Daniel Cabrera (Dominican Republic), Bruce Chen (Panama) and Melvin Mora (Venezuela).
The competition, which will be held in the middle of MLB's spring training, is not without potential complications. Cuba has not formally agreed to participate (forcing MLB to line up Colombia and Nicaragua as possible fallbacks). Olympic drug-testing standards will be used, leaving the potential for an embarrassing positive test. And rules must still be drawn up to alleviate teams' concerns over the health risks to their pitchers.
"I have serious concerns," said Nationals General Manager Jim Bowden, asked specifically about the participation of Vidro and Ayala, both of whom are coming off injuries. "I think [the Classic] is a great cause, and I fully support it. But we have to make sure our players are 100 percent healthy."
Selig acknowledged the many similar concerns that have been expressed by executives and owners within the game, but said, "After next March, the bandwagon, I can assure you, will be full."
The Classic, a joint endeavor between Major League Baseball and its players' association, represents the sport's biggest push yet into an international marketplace it had long before ceded to the NFL and NBA. In July, the International Olympic Committee voted to drop baseball from the Olympic Games following 2008.
Monday's announcement found Selig and number two union official Gene Orza, normally adversaries in the sport's eternal search for labor peace, speaking glowingly of each other.
"During the course of his remarks, [Selig] said some nice things about me. I noticed the tiles of the roof are not falling down," Orza joked. ". . . Whatever success this endeavor has in the end, the major portion of that credit will have to go to commissioner Selig."
Also Monday, former Toronto Blue Jays manager and current ESPN and Orioles television analyst Buck Martinez was named manager of the U.S. team, with former Orioles manager Davey Johnson as his bench coach. Martinez said he was already imagining a lineup that could begin with Johnny Damon, followed by Jeter, Rodriguez and Bonds.
"It's an all-star team, basically -- an all-world team," said Bob Watson, the general manager of USA Baseball.
Other aspects of the tournament that were revealed on Monday:
* Tournament drug-testing, which will be overseen by the World Anti-Doping Agency, is mutually exclusive of the newly announced MLB testing program, which means a player who tests positive under the World Baseball Classic testing will not be further punished under the terms of the MLB. program.
* Players in the Asian pool will be announced at a later date; however, MLB stars Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui are expected to participate.
* All players, excluding those on the Asian teams, will be required to report to their MLB teams' spring training camps, which generally open in mid-February, before departing for their respective national teams roughly one week before the opening of competition.
* Tickets will go on sale Dec. 10 for the games in Puerto Rico, and Dec. 12 for the games in the U.S. Tickets will be on sale through the tournament Web site, www.worldbaseballclassic.com.
* The tournament is expected to adopt a strict pitch-count limit for pitchers, as well as a limit on the number of innings played by position players.
* No MLB team can lose more than 10 players off its 25-man roster, or more than 14 players off its expanded 40-man roster.