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A World Cup rival? Baseball fields a global game.

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Asia's many baseball devotees love the home run. They admire bat speed and power. But in the sandlots and stadiums of the Pacific, it's really the "small ball" game that gets the glory - bunting, base stealing, speed, defense, pitching.

Think Ichirio Suzuki, the Japanese marquee player of the Seattle Mariners, whose game is all about finesse.

Indeed, as the game invented in America goes formally global, the inaugural event of the World Baseball Classic will take place in the Land of the Rising Sun - in an Asia where local talent is making great inroads into Major League Baseball, also known as "the bigs."

National teams from Korea, Japan, China, and Taiwan will vie to advance to the next phase of the classic - which features 16 teams in four rounds of elimination, ending in a final game on March 20 in San Diego.

If this sounds like baseball's attempt to create its own version of soccer's world-stopping "World Cup," it is.

"We are trying to internationalize the sport," Major League Baseball spokesman Pat Courtney told the Monitor. "The World Cup is a model for us."

The US majors count players from 30 countries. But Asia is a compass point where growth is fastest. Ten years ago Asian faces were rare and novel. Today, Taiwan has 13 players in the majors and minors, South Korea sports 10, and Japan contributes 18, including "Godzilla" - Hideki Matsui, the New York Yankees power-hitting left fielder, who will not play in the classic. [Editor's note: The original version misstated Matsui's first name.]

Unofficially, the teams from South Korea and Japan are given the greatest chance to win. But in the last Olympics, the Japanese lost in a painful 1-0 game to Australia - and team leader Ichiro has warned that Korea and Taiwan have aggressive teams that could offer an upset.

The Taiwan team is required to play under the name of "Chinese Taipei," since Beijing has long claimed that the island, a self-governing democracy, is historically Chinese sovereign territory.

China, not surprisingly given its history of isolation, has no history of a baseball program, and no players in the majors. It has six relatively new teams, four of which are considered promising - the Beijing Tigers, Tianjin Lions, Shanghai Eagles, and Guangdong Leopards. The Middle Kingdom's national team is in a learning curve, one helped by former LA Dodger's manager Jim Lefebvre.


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