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Global phenomenon: Classic a marquee event

Now in its fourth iteration, baseball's pre-eminent global tourney delivers for fans
Special to MLB.com

Every four years, sports fans are reminded of how the forces of nationalism dominate our beloved pastimes. Soccer fans -- or football, depending on your reference point -- pack stadiums, pubs or anywhere with a large TV to raucously cheer for their respective countries during the World Cup. Across the world, medal counts and broken records dominate the conversation for more than two weeks as the Olympic Games play out. And for the World Baseball Classic, the mood is largely the same.

Fans from the sport's traditional powerhouses, like Japan and the Dominican Republic, pack venues across the globe in a show of support for their nations' stars. But even the most unlikely participants, like the Netherlands and Australia, revel in the experience as fans rally behind them, decked out in their countries' colors and rooting hard for an upset.

Every four years, sports fans are reminded of how the forces of nationalism dominate our beloved pastimes. Soccer fans -- or football, depending on your reference point -- pack stadiums, pubs or anywhere with a large TV to raucously cheer for their respective countries during the World Cup. Across the world, medal counts and broken records dominate the conversation for more than two weeks as the Olympic Games play out. And for the World Baseball Classic, the mood is largely the same.

Fans from the sport's traditional powerhouses, like Japan and the Dominican Republic, pack venues across the globe in a show of support for their nations' stars. But even the most unlikely participants, like the Netherlands and Australia, revel in the experience as fans rally behind them, decked out in their countries' colors and rooting hard for an upset.

The World Baseball Classic runs from March 6-22. In the U.S., games will air live exclusively in English on MLB Network and on an authenticated basis via MLBNetwork.com/watch, while ESPN Deportes and WatchESPN will provide the exclusive Spanish-language coverage. MLB.TV Premium subscribers in the U.S. will have access to watch every tournament game live on any of the streaming service's 400-plus supported devices. Internationally, the tournament will be distributed across all forms of television, internet, mobile and radio in territories excluding the U.S., Puerto Rico and Japan. Get tickets for games at Marlins Park, Tokyo Dome, Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul, Estadio Charros de Jalisco in Mexico, Petco Park, as well as the Championship Round at Dodger Stadium, while complete coverage -- including schedules, video, stats and gear -- is available at WorldBaseballClassic.com.

Full World Baseball Classic coverage

At a late-September Classic qualifier, the last of four play-in rounds in 2016, waves crashed and seagulls squawked along the shores of Coney Island as teams from Brazil, Great Britain, Israel and Pakistan lined the baselines at MCU Park, home of the Brooklyn Cyclones, the Mets' Class A Short-Season affiliate. And although Team Pakistan was, without a doubt, the underdog, fans unfurled a giant Pakistani flag in the stands and chants of "Pak-i-stan" echoed throughout the stadium as the bright lights of Coney Island's iconic amusement park flashed in the backdrop, highlighting the unique beauty of the Classic.

:: 2017 World Baseball Classic ::

"The idea of this tournament is to globalize the sport of baseball," said Hall of Famer Barry Larkin, who managed Team Brazil in the 2013 World Baseball Classic and that Brooklyn qualifier, and served as Team USA's bench coach in '09. "It's definitely evident that good ball is played all around the world."

From seasoned Major Leaguers to members of previously unheard-of national baseball federations, players of all shapes, sizes and abilities compete against one another during the Classic, MLB's biggest global event. And it's the opportunity to represent their country -- not their franchise -- that inspires every participant.

"This was a great opportunity to show my work, but first and foremost, I was fighting for my country, and I do that with a lot of pride," Bo Takahashi, a 20-year-old Brazil-born pitcher currently in the D-backs' farm system, said during the Brooklyn qualifier.

"I try to approach every opportunity I get with as much passion as I can," right-handed pitcher Jason Marquis, a 15-year MLB veteran and one of numerous American players of Jewish heritage on Team Israel's roster, said during the September play-in round, when Team Israel earned a spot in the '17 tournament. "It was definitely our goal to win this qualifier and get to the main event."

Video: Decker, Team Israel love fan support for their team

And although it did not advance, the passionate Pakistani squad made great strides in its first true test on the international stage.

"In Pakistan, we don't have a baseball field; we have a soccer ground," manager Syed Fakhar Ali Shah said after his team's first game. "The bounce of the ball is totally different. Every match, every ball, my players are learning."

Leading up to this year's tournament -- the fourth since the World Baseball Classic's 2006 inception -- MLB held three other qualifiers to determine the 16 teams that would compete in the 2017 Classic. In February 2016, Australia swept the Sydney qualifier with the help of some standout offense from then-Twins farmhands James Beresford and Logan Wade. Teams from Colombia and Mexico also advanced in their respective qualifiers last March.

"I was impressed overall. You can see that the game is developing in their countries," said Larkin, a Cincinnati native and Reds infielder for nearly two decades, who has been a fixture on the international baseball scene for some time.

But Larkin is far from the only player with a Hall of Fame pedigree to take advantage of the chance to participate in the World Baseball Classic. Legendary Padres closer Trevor Hoffman -- who narrowly missed out on Hall of Fame election this year -- was the bullpen coach for Great Britain during its qualifier, while his former Padres teammate, Steve Finley, served on Larkin's staff, along with recently retired MLB pitcher LaTroy Hawkins. Storied skipper Jim Leyland is at the helm of Team USA in 2017.

Even Ken Griffey Jr., who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2016, played in the inaugural tournament a decade ago.

"For two weeks, I really enjoyed being a part of it," said Griffey, who was named to the All-World Baseball Classic Team, although Team USA went 1-2 in pool play. "Anything can happen on any given day. If you're consistent and make the plays, you can beat anybody."

Video: Remembering the 2006 World Baseball Classic

In 2006, the Classic's inaugural year, 16 teams from five continents vied for a true world title at San Diego's Petco Park and Japan's Tokyo Dome, among other host sites. Japan triumphed over Cuba while riding the performance of soon-to-be Major Leaguer Daisuke Matsuzaka, who went 3-0. In '09, the Netherlands twice upset the Dominican Republic at Puerto Rico's Hiram Bithorn Stadium, but Japan ultimately won again, this time over South Korea as Ichiro Suzuki knocked the game-winning single. Four years later, Japan was absent from the finals as Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic battled for the 2013 championship at San Francisco's AT&T Park. The D.R. team had dominated the entire tournament, going 8-0 thanks to the hot bat of tournament MVP Robinson Cano, and to earn the country its first title.

Even more than the results, players revel in the atmosphere. A Classic-record 54,846 fans packed Dodger Stadium for the 2009 championship, and through the first three tournaments, more than 2.5 million fans have turned out to watch baseball's best represent their native and ancestral countries.

"As long as there are fans there, that's what makes it fun for the players," said Derek Jeter, who played alongside Griffey in the 2006 tournament. "Sometimes they'll be for you, sometimes against you, but I think it makes a good atmosphere."

"I think the Classic is great for baseball," said Carlos Beltran, who represented Puerto Rico in the first three tournaments and now is one of just six MLB players participating in his fourth Classic. "As a player, you play for your country, and no one wants to lose. So every player that has the opportunity to play in a [meaningful] game, we're always going to give what we have."

Which gives fans all the more reason to hold on to the edge of their seats this March. After all, baseball begins early this year, and fans should have no complaints about that.

Allison Duffy-Davis is a contributor to MLB.com.