March 16th, 2006 was a huge day in the annals of the storied game of baseball, our national pastime here in America. The occasion was the second round game of the first-ever World Baseball Classic between the heavily favored team from the United States and the team from Mexico.

The Americans came into this inaugural tournament pitting the world’s best pro ball players against one another as the favorites to win it all. After all, the game was invented here, and the U.S. team was filled with mega-stars and living legends with names like Ken Griffey Jr., Chipper Jones, Roger Clemens, Chase Utley, and Derek Jeter.

The Americans had moved through the tournament to that point with a lackluster 3-2 record, but just needed this win over the Mexicans to advance into the final round of play. Mexico was also 3-2, but due to the tie-breakers in place they had no shot at advancing. All they could hope to do would be to play the role of spoiler.

On the day before St. Patrick’s Day in 2006, they shocked the world and did just that, shutting down the powerful American bats in a shocking 2-1 win that eliminated the U.S. stars from the tournament. The favored Americans would not even reach the semi-finals.

Tournament organizers and television sponsors feared that the all-international flavor would be a killer to their ratings and to this initial effort. Why would anyone, especially in the U.S., care about and follow the tourney now that the American stars were out?

But then a funny thing happened on the way to international baseball oblivion. An entertaining tournament broke out among the final four teams. In a Latin American semi-final, the vaunted ‘amateurs’ from Cuba defeated a team from the Dominican Republic that featured its own collection of Major League Baseball stars such as David Ortiz, Moises Alou, and Miguel Tejada. The Cubans thrilling 3-1 victory was secured by a legendary multi-inning relief performance from big, imposing pitcher Pedro Lazo, and the team from the little baseball-proud nation would move into its 37th consecutive finals in international competition.

Joining them would be the equally proud and even more historically baseball-crazed nation of Japan. The Japanese team used phenomenal pitching, team speed, and the leadership of superstar Ichiro Suzuki to defeat the previously undefeated team from South Korea by a 6-0 score.

While the finals would not have the Americans, they would have a dynamic matchup of contrasting cultures and passionate fans as Cuba and Japan took the field. The Japanese had made it into the semi-finals only because of that stunning American loss to Mexico, and they decided to make the most of their second chance by actually winning the whole tournament. Their bats came alive against Cuba’s normally solid pitchers, and on March 20th, 2006 Japan’s players mobbed one another on the field at San Diego’s Petco Park in celebration (pictured) of winning the first World Baseball Classic by a 10-6 score.

The tournament had not only survived the early American knockout, but it had thrived over the course of a two-week display of baseball prowess and national pride. So, now here we are three years later about to begin the action and excitement all over again.

Once again the team from the USA is favored. The 2009 American team returns Jeter, Jones, and Jake Peavy and includes younger stars like David Wright, Dustin Pedroia, Ryan Braun, and the World Series champion Phillies own Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino. But as we learned three years ago, there is plenty of talent in the baseball world, and a champion could emerge from any number of nations.

The Cubans are actually favored by some this time. They play in what looks like an easy opening round bracket, so they should reach the semi-finals again. Led by Ichiro and starting pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka, defending champion Japan will again be formidable. The Japanese team will show off perhaps the most talked about young pitcher on the planet in 22-year old sensation Yu Darvish.

The Dominicans will again be strong despite the loss of Alex Rodriguez to injury. They will field an exciting club led by Big Papi’s veteran presence behind young superstars Jose Reyes and Hanley Ramirez. The other semi-finalist from ’06 was South Korea, who had gone through pool play undefeated. The Koreans used that experience as a springboard to the gold medal at the Beijing Olympics, and have a powerful offense.

The teams from Venezuela, Mexico, Canada, and Puerto Rico all have enough talent that if they get a strong pitching performance on a given day, they certainly could knock off the big boys and pull a stunner to equal that of the Mexicans over the U.S. back in 2006. The other nations trying to reach the finals at Dodger Stadium are Australia, China, Italy, South Africa, Taiwan, and the Netherlands, and each will be fighting for at least one victory for national pride.

The 2009 World Baseball Classic should once again prove interesting and entertaining for any fan to follow, no matter which nations are playing one another. The tournament is beginning now, and is being covered on television at both ESPN2 and the all-new MLB network. Check your listings and watch some of the WBC games, which especially as they move into the later rounds will prove to be truly classic baseball.