| NEW YORK
NEW YORK The status of Yankees slugger Alex Rodriguez on the Dominican Republic team remained up in the air ahead of Thursday's launch of baseball's highest-level international competition, the World Baseball Classic.
Rodriguez, the highest paid player in Major League Baseball at $27.5 million a year, was seeing a Colorado hip specialist on Wednesday about a nagging condition that put his participation in the 16-nation, 19-day tournament in doubt.
Some other top players are missing from the rosters as they recover from injury or get acclimatized to new teams following trades, yet a formidable crop of great hitters and pitchers will be playing for patriotic pride in the second WBC.
David "Big Papi' Ortiz (Red Sox), Hanley Ramirez (Marlins), Jose Reyes (Mets) and Robinson Cano (Yankees) are among the heavy hitters that make the Dominican lineup potent regardless of A-Rod's status.
Ichiro Suzuki and defending champions Japan take to the Tokyo Dome diamond against China to open the Classic that is expected to feature 52 Major League Baseball All-Stars along with a batch of former MVPs and Cy Young winners.
Japan and Olympic champions South Korea, third-place finishers in the 2006 Classic, are considered the favorites to emerge from Pool A, which also includes Taiwan.
The first round, comprised of four pools with four teams in each, will be double elimination. Two teams from each pool will advance to Round 2, which will also be double elimination with four teams reaching the semi-finals in Los Angeles.
Pool B in Mexico City is comprised of 2006 runners-up Cuba, Mexico, Australia and South Africa; Pool C in Toronto has the United States, Venezuela, Canada and Italy, while Pool D in San Juan features the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Panama and the Netherlands.
Tournament ticket sales are running ahead of 2006, when attendance reached nearly three-quarters of a million, according to organizers.
The U.S. team, embarrassed last time when they failed to reach the semi-finals, boast a strong lineup including Derek Jeter (Yankees), American League MVP Dustin Pedroia (Red Sox), Chipper Jones (Braves) and David Wright (Mets) but have been hurt by late scratches by relievers B.J. Ryan and Joe Nathan.
Venezuela looks imposing with a batting order that includes Miguel Cabrera and Magglio Ordonez (Tigers) and Bobby Abreu (Angels), starter Felix Hernandez (Mariners) and reliever Francisco Rodriguez (Mets).
San Diego's PETCO Park will host the second round for the four survivors of Pools A and B. The four teams advancing from Pools C and D will play at Dolphin Stadium in Miami.
Japan, who have five major leaguers including Ichiro and his Mariners team mate Kenji Johjima, Akinori Iwamura (Rays), Kosuke Fukudome (Cubs) and hurler Daisuke Matsuzaka.
Yu Darvish, a 22-year-old who went 16-4 last season for the Nippon Ham Fighters, will start the opener for Japan, who are saving 2006 Classic MVP Matsuzaka, 18-3 last season for the Boston Red Sox, for a later game.
(Editing by Justin Palmer)