REUTERS - Playoff baseball comes to Brooklyn this week as the last spot in next year's World Baseball Classic (WBC) field of 16 nations will be decided in a tournament between Brazil, Israel, Britain and Pakistan.
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The tournament opens on Thursday with favorites Brazil, managed by Hall of Famer Barry Larkin, playing an afternoon game against Pakistan before Israel meets Britain in the second game of a day-night doubleheader at MCU Stadium.
The winner of Sunday's final in the round-robin qualifying event in Coney Island will travel to Seoul in March to join hosts South Korea, the Netherlands and Taiwan in Pool B of the premier international competition.
Other WBC first-round games will be played in Tokyo, Miami and Guadalajara. The final will be staged in Los Angeles.
Larkin led Brazil into the main draw of the 2013 championship with a qualifying tournament win in Panama before they were eliminated in the first round.
The former Cincinnati Reds shortstop says the WBC drove up interest in the game in Brazil, as well as in other participating countries hoping to develop in baseball.
"This tournament has a lot to do with the growth of baseball in Brazil," Larkin told reporters at the 7,000-seat stadium set on the edge of the Coney Island amusement park with the boardwalk and Atlantic Ocean beyond as its backdrop.
"The amount of attention we received down in Panama during the qualifier was incredible, amazing. The reception the players got when we returned back to Brazil was fantastic."
That success was further fueled by native Brazilians making it to Major League Baseball in Yan Gomes (Indians) and Paulo Orlando, who was on the Kansas City Royals team that won the 2015 World Series.
"I think kids now see there is an opportunity other than football or soccer, another way to get out of the favelas," Larkin said of Brazil's urban slums.
Big baseball powers including defending champions Dominican Republic, the United States, Japan, Cuba and Venezuela already booked berths in the fourth edition of the championship that debuted in 2006, based on their finish in the 2013 competition.
Brazil, Britain and Israel come with rosters featuring current or former professional players.
Israel has the most recognizable names on its roster in former big leaguers Jason Marquis, who is expected to pitch on Thursday, Ike Davis and lefty reliever Craig Breslow.
Britain has National League all-time saves leader Trevor Hoffman, whose mother, Mikki, is English, as their bullpen coach.
Pakistan is the only country without any professional players but manager Syed Fakhar Ali Shah is undaunted, saying their youth programs will pave the way for a bright future.
"Pakistan (has been) a cricket champion, world champions," he told Reuters, noting that many of his players now are former cricketers. "In the future, we're going to make it very good."