DEARBORN, Mich. (AP) – The United States will be grouped with Mexico, Canada and South Africa next year in the first round of baseball’s first World Cup-style tournament.

The 16-nation, 18-day event, called the World Baseball Classic, opens March 3 in Tokyo or Taiwan, where Group A will include Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and China.

The United States will be in Group B, which starts play March 8 along with the other groups and will be based in the United States.

Cuba, Puerto Rico, Panama and the Netherlands are in Group C, which will be in Latin America, and the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Australia and Italy are in Group D, which will be based in Florida.

Major League Baseball has spent more than a decade discussing the tournament and hopes the event will gain in prestige, such as soccer’s World Cup.

The International Olympic Committee voted Friday to kick baseball out of the Olympics following the 2008 Beijing Games. IOC president Jacques Rogge cited baseball’s refusal to allow players on 40-man major league rosters to participate and the sport’s drug-testing rules, which do not meet the World Anti-Doping Agency’s standards.

“I don’t know if frankly I consider it a blow,” baseball commissioner Bud Selig said. “I’m sorry they made the decision, but we’re moving on in a very dramatic way to internationalize this sport.”

While Nippon Professional Baseball has agreed to participate, the Japanese players’ association has not yet given its approval and has objected to having the tournament during spring training. It also is unclear whether Cuba, which might fear defections, will accept its invitation.

Gene Orza, the chief operating officer of the players’ association, said the obstacles could be overcome.

“Cubans play international events with American and against Americans all the time,” he said.

Several players who agreed to participate attended a news conference on the day prior to the All-Star game: Miguel Tejada (Dominican Republic), Carlos Beltran (Puerto Rico) Andruw Jones (Netherlands), Dontrelle Willis (United States), Jason Bay (Canada), Carlos Lee (Panama), Hee Seop Choi (South Korea) and Justin Huber (Australia).

“I just hope I make the team,” Willis said.

Tejada said fans back home would look forward to the event, which baseball hopes will be played a second time in 2009.

“They’re going to be really excited to see all the players on one team,” he said.

Each team plays three first-round games, with the top two teams in each group advancing to the second round, where each team plays three more games starting March 13.

Four teams advance to the single-elimination semifinals on March 18, and the semifinal winners go on to a one-game championship on March 20. The second round will be split between the United States and Latin America, and the semifinals and final will be played in the United States. No specific sites were announced, but the list of possibilities include Houston, Seattle and sites in Florida, Arizona and California.

Each team will have 27 players, including at least 12 pitchers, and there will be pitch-count limits. Players must be citizens of the nation they play for.

“We’re aware of the issue of country jumping,” said Paul Archey, an executive vice president in the commissioner’s office, “but we haven’t adopted a hard-and-fast rule.”

Teams agreed not to block players from participating, but Orza acknowledged some clubs would try to sway players against playing.

“You can’t stop people from talking,” he said.

Forty-seven percent on the net proceeds of the 39-game tournament will go to prize money, with the remaining 53 percent split among Major League Baseball, the players’ association, the International Baseball Federation and the organizations of the participating teams.

While soccer’s World Cup is run by FIFA, the sport’s international governing body, this event is pretty much controlled by MLB and the players’ association, which has drawn complaints from Japanese baseball officials.

“Some already have accused us of being too dominant in the conduct of this event and we’re sensitive to that,” Orza said.

Insurance will be the largest single item in terms of cost, said Paul Archey, a baseball senior vice president.

AP-ES-07-11-05 1207EDT

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