WBC's first-round hosts: Mexico City, San Juan, Tokyo, Toronto

TOKYO -- Mexico City, San Juan, Tokyo and Toronto were picked Monday to host first-round games during the second World Baseball Classic, scheduled to begin play in March 2009.

The 16-nation tournament will switch from a round-robin to a double-elimination format during the first two rounds. Japan won the initial WBC in 2006, beating Cuba 10-6 in the final at San Diego.

The four first-round venues are the Rogers Centre in Toronto, where the United States will play; Hiram Bithorn Stadium in Puerto Rico; the Tokyo Dome, and Foro Sol Stadium in Mexico City.

The second- and final-round venues will be announced in April and will be on both the East and West coasts of the United States. Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles is the leading candidate to host the semifinals and final.

While Dominican Republic team officials told ESPNDeportes.com earlier this month that the country would not participate if it was not considered among the sites for one of the three rounds of the tournament, Gene Orza, general counsel for the players' association, said the country accepted the invitation.

The United States, which was a disappointment when it did not reach the WBC final round in 2006, will face fairly strong competition from Canada and Venezuela in its pool, along with Italy.

"People thought we didn't take it as seriously as we did," Athletics closer Huston Street told ESPN.com's Jim Caple, "but there were 14 of us sitting around in a diner listening to the game and just hoping we would get a chance to move on."

"The excitement [in 2006] was far beyond what we players imagined. We had no idea what we were getting into," Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek said. "For American players, that's a great stepping stone for us. I would encourage any of the American players to play in the WBC."

At Monday's announcement in Japan, where the Red Sox and A's will open Major League Baseball's 2008 season, Orza praised commissioner Bud Selig for making the WBC work.

"Whatever success the WBC has, it has many fathers," Orza said, "but one of the prime reasons is the contribution of people -- the human bodies -- that Bud Selig has dedicated to the creation of the WBC and I want to congratulate him for his efforts in making baseball a truly world sport."

"The 2009 World Baseball Classic will further demonstrate the remarkable global growth of our game," Selig said. "There has been incredible demand to host the games of the second World Baseball Classic."

The breakdown of pool play:

" China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan will play in Group A at Tokyo from March 5-9.

" Australia, Cuba, Mexico and South Africa will play in Group B at Mexico City from March 8-12.

" Canada, Italy, United States and Venezuela will play in Group C at Toronto from March 8-12.

" Dominican Republic, Netherlands, Panama and Puerto Rico will play in Group D at San Juan from March 7-11.

Paul Archey, head of MLB International, said the pools took into account competitive balance as well as the interest of fans in the host cities. For instance, it didn't make sense to have Canada host a round in Toronto but play in Puerto Rico.

Unlike 2006, teams that advance from the second round will cross over for the semifinals and face opponents from the other side of the bracket.

Addressing concerns about tie-breaker rules in 2006, when each pool played a round-robin, Archey said next year's first rounds will switch to a double-elimination format.

Interestingly, while the news conference was held in Tokyo, and while Japan was the 2006 WBC champion, no one officially representing Nippon Professional Baseball attended the announcement. Also, while Red Sox and A's players from the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Canada and the United States appeared at the news conference, no Japanese players were there. Archey cited scheduling conflicts for 2006 WBC MVP Daisuke Matsuzaka and Red Sox reliever Hideki Okajima.

When a reporter pointed out that the NPB has not yet agreed to participate in the WBC, Archey acknowledged that the announcement was merely about the invitation to the 16 countries.

One goal of the WBC is to generate interest in baseball worldwide, but Red Sox infielder Alex Cora expressed hope that it will spur interest closer to home.

"Baseball in Puerto Rico has been fading," he said. "We didn't have a winter league for the first time in 70 years this year. Hosting the first round will be good for our country and hopefully get back the passion."

Bob DuPuy, MLB's president and chief operating officer, and Archey both expressed hope that the WBC's success will help baseball get back into the Olympics. Dr. Harvey Schiller, who took over as head of the International Baseball Federation last year after having served as executive director of the United States Olympic Committee, said he is very optimistic that baseball will be able to return to the Olympics in 2016, or perhaps in 2012 as a demonstration sport in London.

"Support is pretty strong from IOC members," he said.

Jim Caple covers Major League Baseball for ESPN.com. Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.