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U.S. Faces Undefeated Puerto Rico In World Baseball Classic Final

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Baseball may be the American pastime, but this is the first time the U.S. has reached the finals in the World Baseball Classic. Now, if you're not familiar with the tournament, think of it as baseball's answer to the World Cup. It's held every four years. Sixteen international teams compete for global baseball domination. Now, the U.S. always hosts, but the best American finish was in 2009, when the team lost in the semifinals to Japan. Team USA got a measure of revenge last night by beating Japan in the semis. And tonight, it will face undefeated Puerto Rico in Dodger Stadium in LA for the title.

Joining me now via Skype is Jon Morosi. He's a reporter for mlb.com. He's part of the announcer team for MLB Network's coverage of tonight's baseball game. Welcome to the program.

JON MOROSI: Glad to be with you, Audie.

CORNISH: So why has it taken so long for the U.S. team to make it to the finals?

MOROSI: I think there are a few different answers. I think number one, the overall quality of play internationally is very high. Then also there's the issue of preparedness. Really, before the WBC came around in 2006, we never had what you would call a best on best baseball tournament. For a long time, even when baseball was in the Olympics, MLB never stopped its season to send the very best players from this continent, at least, into that tournament. So some other countries have maybe come to the tournament in the past in a bit sharper condition and more prepared to play.

But I think this year's team with Jim Leyland running it, he's done a very good job. And the players, Audie, seem to me to really have bought into this maybe in a more powerful, forceful way than they did in the past.

CORNISH: How seriously does the U.S. take this tournament in terms of, like, the players and the pro leagues and the kind of feeder athletes that would go into it?

MOROSI: That's a great question. And I think that we are so used to seeing the highest caliber of baseball on a daily basis for six and seven months during the course of the summer. And I think for the other countries, this is their - to use your analogy earlier, their World Cup. This is their chance to compete at the highest level. So there is an immense amount of pride and enthusiasm that now we're on the same playing field as the Americans. Whereas I think most American baseball fans are consumed with their club team, if you will. If you're a Red Sox fan you care about the Red Sox rotation right now. You're programmed to think about what's going on at Fort Myers at spring training.

CORNISH: I want to ask about the game between Puerto Rico and the U.S. because Puerto Rico is undefeated. It had already defeated the Americans earlier in the tournament. Are they the favorite tonight?

MOROSI: You know, it's a fascinating story, Audie, because Puerto Rico - phenomenally young, a lot of enthusiasm. They're led by a veteran catcher, Yadier Molina. There was a period there where baseball sort of lost its way in Puerto Rico. And you've heard player after player, Audie, speak about how much this tournament has really given the island a lot of pride. So it's a very special time for Puerto Rico. The team has died their hair blond. School kids in Puerto Rico have dyed their hair blond as well, even though some of them have been suspended as a result of this.

So it's really become a bit of a cultural phenomenon in Puerto Rico, probably more powerful than what we're seeing in the U.S. But on paper, I still think there's probably more talent, one through 28, in terms of players on the roster for Team USA. But right now Puerto Rico is a team on a mission.

CORNISH: Jon Morosi is a reporter for mlb.com. He spoke to us about the World Baseball Classic. Finals are tonight. Thanks so much, Jon.

MOROSI: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.