April 18, 2012

For Phillies prospect Phillippe Aumont, pitching one scoreless inning for Canada in the 2009 World Baseball Classic was unforgettable. It ranks among his proudest accomplishments, somewhere near being invited to big-league camp this spring.

"That first moment when I walked on the field right before the game in Toronto," he said, "just the atmosphere and knowing that there's 42,000 people there and about 41,000 of them are Canadian and rooting for us ... it's not quite the same as walking on the field for the Phillies, or for me, the [AAA] IronPigs. It's just a little different feeling."

Though Canada lost both games in the double-elimination tournament, the feeling of wonder stuck with him. "I was just so proud to wear my colors," he said.

Here's the problem: Aumont and his teammates may not have that chance again next year.

The World Baseball Classic, spawned after the IOC voted to eliminate baseball as an Olympic sport in 2005, is changing. It will still be held before spring training every four years, and major league teams still won't be allowed to directly block players from participating. But as one of the major goals of the WBC is to help grow the game worldwide, officials have introduced a new rule: The four teams that went winless in 2009 will have to compete against 12 other nations to secure a place in the tournament.

The same 16 teams participated in 2006 and '09. Now, Canada, Chinese Taipei, Panama and South Africa will act as No. 1 seeds in four-team qualifiers to defend their spot.

But here's the kicker, and something that could prove especially detrimental to Canada: While Qualifiers 2, 3 and 4 will be held in early- to mid-November, Qualifier 1 -- comprised of Canada, Germany, the Czech Republic and Great Britain -- will be played from Sept. 20-24, during the tail end of the major league season. As to not to conflict with potential pennant races, no player on a major league roster will be permitted to compete.

"Our concern obviously rests around the reality that our qualifying roster would be dramatically different than the team that we would field in an actual WBC," said Greg Hamilton, the director of Baseball Canada and the team's serving general manager.

It's a valid point, as Canada will be hit harder than most countries. Of the 1,843 players who spent time in the majors from 2009-present, 30 list Canada as their country of birth. That ranks fifth behind the United States (1,340), Dominican Republic (185), Venezuela (122) and Puerto Rico (43). Zero are from Great Britain and the Czech Republic, and just four are from what was formerly known as West Germany.

Aumont is an example of a player in limbo -- he is currently on the Phillies' 40-man roster and has a good chance of being called up -- and cannot be certain that he'll be eligible for the qualifier.

Major League Baseball officials acknowledge that the qualifier's timing hurts Canada, but feel that the importance of holding a qualifier in Europe -- it will take place in Rechensburg, Germany -- outweighs a potential disadvantage to a traditional baseball country. In that regard, September was the only option: The qualifiers would be overshadowed by the MLB playoffs in October, and the temperature would be too cold to play in Germany in November.

"Obviously the ideal scenario would have been to play all four in November," said Paul Archey, MLB senior vice president for international business operations. "We started with the notion of trying to play all of them in November, but it just was not feasible to do that in places that it made sense to play. When looking for places to play the qualifiers we didn't want to play all the qualifiers in Arizona and Florida because that doesn't help the objective of growing the game."

Although WBC officials did discuss the possibility of holding a qualifier in Canada, they ultimately dismissed the idea, in part because baseball is already popular. There was also the issue of attendance: Since Canadian fans are accustomed to watching elite baseball, the organizers felt that they'd be less likely to turn out en masse to see inferior talent.

"It's not easy to sell that grouping of four countries in Canada," said Hamilton. "I'm not disrespecting who we're playing, but Canada versus the U.S. or Canada versus Puerto Rico would be a little more popular."

It's disappointing and it's potentially unfair. But there is an upside. Even without its stars, Canada could still make the WBC. A very young Canadian team made up of mostly non-MLB players -- only two of the 24 players were on MLB 40-man rosters at the end of the 2011 season -- stunned the U.S. 2-1 to capture gold medal at the Pan-American Games in October. The entire team will be inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame this summer.

"No offense to Great Britain and the other teams," said Scott Richmond, who pitched 2 2/3 innings for the save in the final game, "but we just came off a gold medal and we've got a lot of young talent. We probably have more to choose from and have a little deeper roster. Obviously you have to play the games, but we'll go in pretty confident."

As far as the differing qualifier dates, Richmond offered a positive spin: "I guess it's a little unfortunate, but you can find some benefits in it where guys are sharper not having to take a month off."

Yankees catcher Russell Martin, who wasn't aware of the qualifier but said he would play if eligible, agreed that Canada has a high probability of advancing. However, he was still dismayed to learn that his opportunity to represent his country in a second WBC rested in the hands of others.

"If they don't qualify, it's gonna suck, but there's not much I can do right now," he said. "[New York] is the team that I play for now and this team pays the bills."

Twins first baseman and 2006 AL MVP Justin Morneau, who played in both previous WBCs, said he also would play in the qualifier if allowed. He considered the possibility that, however unfortunate, he might not play for Canada in 2013.

"It would be very disappointing," he said. "We feel like we have almost enough guys in the big leagues to fill out a major league roster ... we feel like we can compete with the best in the world. In a format like that, anything can happen, so I'd like another chance to get in there."

Stubby Clapp, who played for Team Canada as an infielder in 2006 and '09 and will coach in 2012 in some capacity, said that there's no question that the major leaguers would play in the qualifier if it were held after the season.

"From Justin Morneau to Joey Votto to Russell Martin -- there's just a passion," Clapp said. "It doesn't matter where you're at in your career, when Team Canada plays in a tournament, there's a passion about playing for your country. If there were a tournament right now [and they were allowed to play], you could call them up and they would drop everything and go qualify."

Regardless, the discussion is closed -- and Canada faces a significant challenge.

"It's bad timing, but shame on us for not winning a game last time," said Team Canada manager Ernie Whitt, who has been the Canadian skipper since 2004. "It is what it is and the decisions have already been made. There's nothing more we can do about it. We just have to get ourselves ready and prepare to qualify, wherever it is."

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