The field for the world's largest international baseball tournament is getting even bigger.
World Baseball Classic Inc. announced Wednesday the introduction of a play-in round to the 2013 installation of the World Baseball Classic that will allow 12 new countries to compete for the first time. The new round will bring in 16 teams divided into four pools, and the winner of each pool will advance to play in the World Baseball Classic.
Four teams -- Canada, Chinese Taipei, Panama and South Africa -- will compete in the play-in round after not winning a game in the 2009 World Baseball Classic. New participants will include France, Spain, Great Britain, Germany, and New Zealand in addition to participants from the Americas: Colombia, Nicaragua and Brazil.
Israel, which had a nascent professional baseball league that folded, will also be among the first-time participants, as will Thailand, the Czech Republic and the Philippines.
It's all part of the natural growth and development of the World Baseball Classic -- increasing the international flavor and intrigue of a rapidly evolving event.
"Growing the game of baseball around the globe is the primary objective of the World Baseball Classic," said MLB Commissioner Bud Selig. "By expanding the competitive field of the 2013 tournament, we are demonstrating our commitment to this goal and reinforcing that the World Baseball Classic is the premier showcase of baseball around the globe. The tournament is a unique experience for fans to witness the excitement of this great game, and I encourage organizations around the world to bid for the chance to host this wonderful baseball event."
Michael Weiner, executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, added his voice in support.
"The expansion of the World Baseball Classic from 16 to 28 teams is a testament to the sport's continuing growth in participation and popularity around the world," he said. "The overwhelming fan, player and media support bestowed upon the first two World Baseball Classics is at the root of this decision, which makes the World Baseball Classic a truly global competition."
The winners of the qualifying rounds, which will be held in Fall 2012, will advance to the tournament in March of 2013, where they'll join the 12 countries -- Australia, China, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Italy, Japan, Korea, Mexico, the Netherlands, Puerto Rico, United States and Venezuela -- that receive automatic bids based on their performance in the '09 tournament.
The locations for the qualifying rounds and the actual tournament are still to be decided, and the composition of the pools in the qualifying rounds will be based on geographical location, competitive balance and regional rivalries. The locations will be decided by formal bidding process and are expected to be concluded by December 2011
Riccardo Fraccari, president of the International Baseball Federation (IBAF) -- the sport's world governing body -- was thrilled about the expansion.
"On behalf of the IBAF and its 119 national federations, it is wonderful that the quality of baseball internationally has warranted the expansion of the World Baseball Classic," said Fraccari. "The expansion to 28 teams will be beneficial not only for the worldwide development of baseball, but also to raise the technical level of play in many countries that were previously unable to compete at such levels. The tremendous passion and interest from players, fans and the international community makes the World Baseball Classic a special celebration of the game of baseball."
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com.