For some countries, this may be considered their Olympics, but for the United States, a sense of pride and gratification supplants an international perspective.
The World Baseball Classic opens this week, and for members of Team USA, this will be an experience laden with emotion, pride and passion.
Team USA Manager Joe Torre said the feeling of putting on a baseball uniform with red, white and blue USA blazed across the front creates an historical perspective. In speaking with reporters to promote the event, Torre indicated the sensation would be similar to the zeal and sentiment felt after the 9-11 attacks on the United States.
Pride and passion, he pointed out, and “once you put on the uniform, it’s responsibility.”
At the core, a sense of national purpose clearly permeates players. Plus, the fact the United States has faltered in past World Baseball Classic tournaments has created a sense of urgency for the Americans.
“Putting on this uniform is as good as its gets,” said Diamondbacks’ infielder Willie Bloomquist, a member of the American team. “This is about representing your country and all the emotion that goes with it.”
Bloomquist, one of three Diamondbacks on Team USA, and along with relievers Heath Bell and David Hernandez, holds an unique position.
In the past, the American teams were populated by all-stars. Now, Torre has selected role players and those who may fit into a certain strategy. That means Bloomquist, who can play both in the infield and outfield, fills a utility role as does the Rays’ Ben Zobrist.
Another personnel decision centered around experience.
All four of prospective infielder starters are 30 or older.
At first base, the Yankees’ Mark Texeira (33 on April 11) is slated to start, the Reds’ Brandon Phillips (31 this June 28) is scheduled to start at second, Jimmy Rollins (35 this November) of the Phillies at shortstop, and the Mets’ David Wright (30) will start at third.
Torre’s outfield offers a mix of speed, players who can manufacture runs and power. Penciled in here is the Brewers’ Ryan Braun in left, Shane Victorino of the Red Sox in center and the Marlins’ Giancarlo Stanton in right.
In all, seven members of the D-backs will play for their countries, including catcher Miguel Montero, infielder Martin Prado and outfielder Gerardo Parra with Team Venezuela. As well, non-roster Nelson Figueroa will pitch for Puerto Rico.
In the initial event held in 2006, the Americans did not make it out of the second round, and in 2009, they lost to Japan in the elimination game 9-4 at Dodger Stadium. This time, it’s about making these games count and as Torre pointed out, preparation goes beyond physical.
“The timing of this tournament is unique,” Torre said. “It’s not we can play this in the middle of the year and stop the season like the NHL does for the Olympics. We can’t do this after the season because these players will have played close to 200 games. So, the only realistic time is during spring training.”
Plus, preparation for the World Baseball Classic is difficult.
Spring training is a time to refine skills and gradually build toward the season ahead. This time, the competition and intensity level dramatically increases and players approach each game with greater purpose.
“Our pledge to the major league teams is to return players better than when they left,” Torre said. “We will give them work they would usually get in spring training. We’ll try and match the work load, especially for pitchers.”
Still, the emotion of putting on USA will likely supersede the reality of play.
“I’m just honored to play for the U. S.,” said Bell. “It’s about pride for your country and you do this for everyone.”
Bell has an added incentive.
His father, Jim, is a Marine veteran who is currently battling cancer. Before Heath’s baseball career kicked it, Bell thought of a military career. When the Mets came calling and signed Bell as a non-drafted free agent in June, 1998, baseball took precedence over service to his country.
Yet, his interest in the military and sense of national pride remains high.
Just before reporting to spring training last month, Bell, along with D-backs broadcaster Bob Brenly and others, traveled to the U. S. Military Garrison Grafenwoefer in Germany to participate in Spring Training to the Troops.” His workout tee shirt usually displays, ARMY in black letters against grey material.
Overall, Bell joins an USA pitching staff top-heavy in relievers.
In addition to Hernandez and Bell, relievers include the Braves’ Craig Kimbrell, Derek Holland of Texas, the Cardinals’ Mitchell Boggs, Luke Gregerson of San Diego, and the Giants’ Jeremy Alfeldt.
For starters, Torre can select among a pair of the Washington leftys Ross Detwiler and Gio Gonzalez, the Jays’ R. A. Dickey and Ryan Volgelsong of San Francisco.
While several teams are populated by major league players, Japan, China, Chinese Taipei, Cuba, and Korea contain no players currently in the majors. Plus, Australia and Brazil contain players with only minor league experience.
For Team USA, players will use the Diamondbacks’ Salt River facility as their home base. The first workout is slated for Monday at 1 p.m. and open to the public.
The Americans will play two exhibition games, Tuesday afternoon at Camelback Ranch against the Chicago White Sox, and then Wednesday night at Salt River against the Rockies.
The United States is in Pool D with Canada, Italy and Mexico. Tournament games are slated for Chase Field. The U. S. will open play with Mexico this Friday night at 7 p.m. and follow with a Saturday game against Italy in Chase Field at 7 p.m. They conclude the opening round against Canada Sunday afternoon in Chase Field at 1 p.m.
In Pool A at Fukuoda, Japan, teams include Brazil, China, Cuba and Japan. Pool B at Taichung, Taiwan includes Australia, Chinese Taipei, Korea and The Netherlands. In Pool C in San Juan, Puerto Rico, teams include the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Spain and Venezuela.
In the semi-final round, winners from Pool A and Pool B meet in the Tokyo Dome, March 8 through the 12, and winners from Pool C and D meet in Marlins Park at Miami, March 12 to the 16.
The Championship round is a two-out-of-three set March 17-19 at AT&T Park in San Francisco.
ON THE FIELD …
Projected Diamondbacks’ starters second baseman Aaron Hill and right-fielder Cody Ross and nursing nagging injuries.
Hill was scratched over the weekend for games against the Rangers and Giants. He developed a quad injury late last week, and discovered a discoloration. Manager Kirk Gibson said he’s taking no chances with Hill this early in spring training.
“If this was a regular season game, he would be in there,” Gibson said prior to the D-backs dropping a 5-3 decision to the Giants in Scottsdale Stadium Sunday. “At this point, we’re not taking any liberties.”
The same can be said for Ross, who signed a three year, $26 million deal in the off-season. Ross developed a sore calf, but started Sunday against the Giants, his old club. He left after three innings, and cited soreness in the calf.
Gibson thinks the injury will likely shut Ross down for several days. Until he obtains further medical information, Gibson would not comment on the length of Ross’ absence from the lineup.
REACTION TO SELIG
On Saturday, baseball commissioner Bud Selig said the players union and Major League Baseball will jointly explore the possibility of giving stiffer penalties for substance abuse.
Selig is in favor of tough penalties, and especially for first time offenders. Influenced by the recent suspensions handed to Melky Cabrera and Bartolo Colon, Selig indicated baseball needs to a zero tolerance level, and said the players union is in favor of entering a dialogue to explore the issue.
Players’ reaction to the announcement was generally positive, as Giants’ pitcher Barry Zito said, “I’m all in favor of making players accountable for their actions.”
Others were cautious.
“This is the first I’ve heard of this, so I really can’t comment further,” said Diamondbacks’ veteran infielder Eric Chavez. “My career is basically over so this is an issue for players starting out and just coming along. We do have the toughest drug testing program in all of sports, and it’s working.”