The World Baseball Classic has been played four times, a classic attraction in baseball-loving countries except one. Finally, a cast of megastars - MVPs and Gold Glove winners, and the like - have signed up to represent the United States.
The Dominican Republic, which won in 2013, has regularly rolled out its marquee players like five-time All-Star Robinson Canó and four-time All-Star Dellin Betances. Japan has won twice with its big-name players, including star pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka and 10-time All-Star Ichiro Suzuki.
For Team USA, the catalyst to getting that star power this year was Angels center fielder Mike Trout. Team USA general manager Tony Reagins, the former Angels general manager, persuaded Trout to play in the WBC for the first time, the building block for a star-studded roster.
"From that, the conversations that we had with other players, players who had been involved in the tournament in the past and their experiences, it just started to balloon," Reagins said. "So very soon after that, you start getting some of the best players in our game saying, 'Yeah, I want in.' "
Trout, announced last July as captain of Team USA, helped recruit a team that includes: two-time home run derby champion Pete Alonso; Dodgers star and 2018 AL MVP Mookie Betts; 2022 NL MVP Paul Goldschmidt; two-time NL MVP Bryce Harper (who won't play after elbow surgery); two-time All-Star Tim Anderson, along with several others, all with their own personal hardware.
Dodgers catcher Will Smith and former teammate Trea Turner (now with the Philadelphia Phillies) are also part of the U.S. roster.
Japan won the initial tournament in 2006 and repeated as champion in 2009. The U.S. beat Puerto Rico for the title at Dodger Stadium in 2017. The COVID-19 pandemic delayed the 2021 tournament until 2023. The tournament begins March 8, with the final to be played in Miami on March 21.
"I think from seeing the last couple World Baseball Classics, this has caught on," said Harold Reynolds, a former major league player and WBC broadcaster. "These guys, when it first started, were in Little League, playing travel ball, or in academies. So this becomes something like World Cup soccer, like, 'When I get older, I'm playing in this.' "
Angels manager Phil Nevin has said one of his favorite memories as a player was wearing "USA" on his chest, playing for the team in the Olympics while he was in college. (MLB players on 40-man rosters have never been able to compete in the Summer Games as they conflict with the regular season.)
"All those guys, I'm looking forward to seeing them play and hearing their stories while they're there," Nevin said. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a lot of these guys."
Seven-time All-Star Nelson Cruz played for the Dominican Republic in the first three tournaments and now is the team's general manager. The roster options include six-time All-Star Manny Machado, reigning NL Cy Young winner Sandy Alcantara and three 2022 World Series champions in Jeremy Peña, Framber Valdez and Cristian Javier.
"All the Dominicans, they want to pitch, you know, they all want to play," Cruz said. "So that's a good thing."
The interest is great in Japan too, where Angels star Shohei Ohtani has committed to play for the national team. Five-time All-Star Yu Darvish has also signed up.
When tickets for first-round play in Japan went on sale, they sold out in seconds, with resale prices several times above their original value. And Japan manager Hideki Kuriyama doesn't even have a set plan for when, how long, or in what roles Ohtani will play. He is weighing having him in his usual role as a pitcher and designated hitter, though.
The possible Trout vs. Ohtani matchup, which could happen if both teams reach the final four, thrills even the participants.
"Forget about me being the manager," Kuriyama said. "I just want to see that."
The dramatic infusion of U.S. talent has created an unprecedented buzz around the tournament. The Angels have about a dozen players on the rosters of the U.S., Japan, Mexico, Panama, Colombia, Venezuela and Israel.
"I think the participation has been pretty impressive," Angels general manager Perry Minasian said.
"I think people will appreciate the level of intensity those games present. I don't know if [you've] been, especially in the later rounds, but I would recommend it, highly."
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.