It wasn’t all plain sailing for Aussie legend Graeme Lloyd it seems. He tells much about his career in Nicholas Henning’s latest literary offering, Aussie Baseball Musings, but perhaps the most surprising thing was to learn that in his early days with the Yankees he tells of seeing himself on the back of the local press as “The Blunder from Down Under” and “The Graeme Reaper”. Clearly he wasn’t pitching so well for the Yankees at that stage when the playoffs were just starting in 1996 and in typical NY fashion he was earmarked for abuse. It says a lot about the man that he overcame those initial misgivings to pitch in four games in the 1996 World Series and not give up a hit.
Nicholas has written about the two ABL’s and also focusses on many of the players who have left Australia for the MLB, ‘chasing their dream’. He explores their trials and tribulations in the ‘slave labour’ environment of the minor leagues. His conversations with and about players range from those who were in the vanguard of our attempts to get an Aussie into the big leagues like Phil Dale, Paul Elliott, Matthew Gourlay, Brendan Kingman, Craig Lewis, Mark Marino, Brett Roneberg and Adrian Meagher up to the youngsters who are currently plying their trade in the minor leagues and independent leagues like James Beresford, Daniel McGrath, Ryan Searle, Lewis Thorpe and the Kennelly clan.
Australia has experienced mixed results on the world stage including the Olympics and Nicholas outlines the problems faced by teams over the years including when ex pros were excluded from selection by the then anachronistic rules of the International Baseball Federation up to our unexpected but more than welcome Silver Medal at the Athens Olympics in 2004. The description of the bombing at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 by Aussie Jason Hewitt is personal, descriptive and dramatic.
Of course our former and current Aussie Major Leaguers are mentioned but there are also many players who have slipped under the media radar that Nicholas has tracked down, Players like Matthew Fawcett, Alex Johnson, Richard Olson and Trent Schmutter talk to Nicholas about their personal journeys through college and/or the ABL which has, among other things, become a fertile field for ex pros to get another opportunity; players like Steve Kent and Todd Van Steensel for example. It’s the personal stories that Nicholas has obtained that makes his book such interesting reading as he clearly has personal access to many of the players and his passion for the game permeates every chapter.
It’s well worth the read. The only criticism is the lack of an index making it hard to pinpoint the sections on individual players.
- Please refer to this link to purchase a copy of Aussie Baseball Musings.
By Josh Spasaro/thesatellite.com.au
TEAM Australia’s senior head coach Jon Deeble is barely recognisable in his home country.But that is a vastly different story when he goes to Japan or Boston.
Australia’s “Mr Baseball” also has a role as Asia-Pacific talent scout for the famous Red Sox club.
When Deeble goes to Japan on scouting missions, he gets mobbed by reporters who hammer him with the same question … “Just how did Australia beat superpower Japan twice at the 2004 Athens Olympics?”
That was on the way to the underdog team winning an historic silver medal.
Beating Cuba in the final would have been one of the great team upsets in Olympic history.
It has been almost 10 years since Deeble’s team shocked the baseball world.
Deeble also took the time to chat to me about some other fascinating stories.
Some of those included the covert missions he went on in far-flung areas of Japan, as the only westerner in town, in his efforts to scout and sign star Red Sox relieving pitcher Junichi Tawaza.
Somehow, he and fellow scout at the time, Aussie baseball legend Craig Shipley, pulled that one off.
Deeble recently ran a Major League coaching academy for Australia’s brightest young talents on the Gold Coast, and spoke glowingly about the sport’s future, after Team Australia’s resounding success back in March.
Then, they pulled off yet another big upset, shutting out big-league team the Arizona Diamondbacks 5-0, just before the historic Opening Series in Sydney that also featured the LA Dodgers.
Here is Jon Deeble’s story …
How has the MLB Australian Academy camp gone?
“It’s been fantastic. We’ve had 78 kids in, we’ve had up to a dozen girls who are going away to the world championships, and we’ve had some kids preparing for the under-15 world championships.
“We’ve had a mixed bag, but we’ve had three teams and it’s worked like clockwork. The kids have been phenomenal.
“I would say it’s been the best camp we’ve ever had.”
With these camps only getting better, is this where we’re going to start to see hopefully MLB or high-level players going to America?
“We got 28 kids signed out of here 18 months ago for a total of $4.5 million.
“(Melbourne teenager) Brandon Stenhouse signed with the Yankees at this camp in January.
“This year we’re probably going to get a million dollars worth of kids signed between now and Christmas.
“We’ve got some really good kids coming through this system.
“The coaching staff have been amazing. We’ve got a lot of (former) Major League guys here and they’ve worked fantastic with our coordinators.”
How does this facility get the best out of the players?
“It’s great because we’ve got access to batting cages. It’s all astro turf. We’re getting a third field put in. We’re able to work with 90 kids here, and there are not many other places you can do that.”
What do you think of the Australian Baseball League and the way it’s growing and continuing to develop Major League talent?
“It’s fantastic, and it’s fantastic for our kids. They can see a pathway and they’re saying ‘these guys played here, so it’s achievable to go over to the States and play’.
“We’ve got a lot of good rookie ball kids. There are a lot of good 18 to 20-year-old kids.”
What’s coming up for the senior Australian team?
“It’s a good question. We did so well in March. I think we’re looking at some Asian games towards the end of the year.
“We’ve got to get ourselves into the top 12 for a premier tournament next year.
“There’s a lot on at junior level, and not so much for the seniors. But we’ve got to start pushing these kids through the system.”
How well primed is Australia to capitalise on its Opening Series success from back in March, after beating the Diamondbacks and going so close against the Dodgers?
“It’s hard because you’ve got to keep playing. But we got a lot of publicity, and hopefully we’ll get some more kids playing.
“If we can keep broadening our base, there will be more kids to pick from.
“It’s always hard because you’ve got the AFL, rugby, cricket. Everyone’s fighting for the same players.
“But we’re one of only a few sports that has had increases over the past five years with our participation.
“We really need to get some more kids playing more games. That’s what we’re working on – broadening our base at the bottom.
“The University of Hawaii was in here (on the Gold Coast), San Diego and a few other colleges, and 23 of the 30 Major League teams have been here.”
Australia has many great names for national sporting teams across many codes which includes Rugby League’s Kangaroos and Rugby Union’s Wallabies just to name a few.For years the Australian National Baseball Team was simply Australia but over the last few years they have officially adopted Team Australia as their competition name. For some this name appears to be an unoriginal North American spin off and with the New Zealand National Baseball Team calling themselves the Diamondblacks it seems the Kiwis have come up with a more original team name.Hopefully the Australian Baseball Federation may consider a name change or a return to just Australia, but with so many unique Australian animals, landscapes and interesting history surely we can do better than a mimic name.
The news that the Adelaide Bite have made a managerial change and not renewed Tony Harris’ contract has sparked more discussion on the why it is that our National Coach does not coach at the ABL. This question gained some traction following the disappointing results of Australia’s involvement in the World Baseball Classic and the inevitable debate on where the fault lay – with the selection or the management of the team.
This is one such comment as a result of our announcement of Houston Astros scout Charlie Aliano’s appointment as the Bite’s head coach [see post below]:-
“One day I look forward to reading a posting which confirms changes to the management and coaching staff of the Australian National Team. Charlie Aliano now has his chance to shine in Adelaide and the question I have is why doesn’t Jon Deeble manage an ABL team? Athens 2004 was a long time ago and frankly Deeble should prove himself against all the ABL field managers as I think competition is a good thing for him and to prove his skills. Kevin Jordan did a lot with a thinly stretched Bandits team last year and perhaps Deeble might show his stuff managing Melbourne, but achievements a decade old are exactly that”.
Jon Deeble replaced Mike Young as the National manager in 2000 for the Sydney Olympics and was again the Olympic manager in 2004 in Athens when Australia won the Silver medal. Australia did not qualify for the 2008 Olympics. Jon has also managed the Australian team at the 2006 [finished 13th], 2009 [12th] and 2013 [16th - last] World Baseball Classics.
So the question is – should the National Manager coach an ABL team and so pit himself against other Managers in the country for the right to manage the national team?
Joe Torre, left, MLB Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations, speaks alongside St. Louis Cardinals teammate Bob Gibson, Wednesday, April 10, 2013, in La Vista, Neb. Torre said his experience as manager of Team USA in the World Baseball Classic has convinced him that the sport belongs in the Olympics. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
By Eric Olson
LA VISTA,— Joe Torre’s first experience in international baseball convinced him that the sport should be back in the Olympics.
Torre managed Team USA in the World Baseball Classic last month and said he was impressed with how invested the players were in the games even though they had to leave spring training to participate.
The Americans lost in the semifinals of the 16-nation tournament. The Dominican Republic defeated Puerto Rico in the championship game.
“The World Baseball Classic has showed you the three times it’s been played that other countries have caught on and done a pretty good job of playing baseball,” Torre said.
Torre was in the Omaha suburb of La Vista for a banquet celebrating the unveiling of a statue of his St. Louis Cardinals teammate and Omaha native Bob Gibson. Former Cardinals Tim McCarver and Bill White also were on hand.
The statue of the Hall of Fame pitcher will stand at Werner Park, the home stadium of the minor league Omaha Storm Chasers.
Torre is a Major League Baseball executive vice president but not directly involved in MLB’s efforts to return the sport to the Olympics.
Baseball and softball have been out of the Games since 2008 and have merged in a bid to return in 2020. They are competing against seven other sports for a single spot on the program.
The IOC board will meet next month in St. Petersburg, Russia, to select one or more sports to submit for final consideration to the IOC general assembly in September.
“I’m a realist. I’d like to believe it will happen,” Torre said. “The reason I can’t give you better than that is because I’d like to be sitting across the table and trying to make a case for it, and I’m sort of on the sidelines. That’s not a criticism. That’s the way we’re set up in MLB.”
Torre said that while Japan, Cuba and Taiwan along with the United States, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic are the elite baseball-playing nations, the Netherlands and Brazil are among the nations improving rapidly.
“To me, it’s really disappointing if we don’t get people’s attention by what’s been going on in the world and how many more countries are getting interested in promoting the game of baseball,” Torre said.
Though the WBC was overshadowed by spring training and the NCAA basketball tournament in the United States, WBC organizers said the event exceeded global broadcast and ticket sales targets.
“You look at how they filled the ballparks in Puerto Rico and Japan when they were playing there,” Torre said.
Torre said there probably isn’t a better time of year to play the WBC, which will next be held in 2017. He said it would be too much to ask major leaguers to play the WBC late in the year after many of them had played 200 spring-training and regular-season games and playoffs.
“Right now, unless somebody says something to me that sort of strikes a chord, we’re just going to have to keep doing this,” he said.
Torre said he would not be in favor of eliminating the All-Star Game and putting the major league season on hiatus for three weeks at midseason in years when the WBC is played.
“I’ve heard rumblings of that,” he said. “You can’t stop baseball for three weeks. I know they do it in hockey (in Olympic years), but we really can’t do it. There’s a rhythm to our game.”
by Tony Capobianco/TucsonCitizen.com
The World Baseball Classic enjoyed its finest edition in 2013 and a lot of countries have benefited from it. Italy’s competitive run to the second round have boosted interest in the sport. Despite being driven by players from Curacao, the Netherlands’ semi-final success is also expected to boost interest.
“Any success you have on the world stage will definitely help baseball in their country,” said Australian Trent Oeltjen of the Los Angeles Angels. Like in Italy, I hear they’re going crazy over there for the Italian team.”
Even in Australia, where the former English colony have cricket as a popular sport, the sport of baseball is slowly growing there. The national team went winless in Pool B but their success in the past, along with a growing number of Australian Major Leaguers has allowed baseball to grow.
“It is getting a lot better,” Oeltjen said. “When I won the silver medal in Athens and more and more people making the Major Leagues out of Australia, there’s more of a following in Australia.”
In terms of Major League presence, having Australians making it to the Major Leagues help build the interest of baseball in that country more than anything else. Since the beginning of the 21st century, 21 Australians have made it to the Major Leagues. 16 of them are pitchers.
“We have a lot of lefties,” said Australian pitcher Travis Blackley of the Oakland Athletics. “It seems like a lot of lefties always sign out of Australia. What position do lefties normally sign as?”
In this era of baseball, pitchers are like quarterbacks. It is actually easier for pitchers to make it through the minor leagues in into MLB than other positions. Why pitchers go from Australia to the Major Leagues is sometimes because of the lack of pitching mileage that Aussie pitchers have compared to American pitchers.
“We also don’t throw as much as you guys so when its gets to the point where we come over here,” said Australian pitcher Peter Moylan of the Los Angeles Dodgers. “We throw half as much as you guys. So I feel like our arms haven’t been through as much. Kids in high school, kids in travel-ball teams over here, they throw every day. I didn’t throw every day until I was signed and that was when I was 17 years old.”
There’s not that many power hitters coming out of Australia, nor is there many position players in general coming out of Australia. They haven’t been conditioned to face and beat top level pitching like those in the college and minor league system here in America.
“You guys see live pitching from a real young age over here,” Moylan said. “We don’t see live pitching until we turn 11 or 12 years old. So the whole development you guys get is the key what makes guys better hitters.”
However Blackley believes that because many pitchers have made it to the Major Leagues and even in the minor leagues, they’ll better prepare the Aussie hitters to follow the trend. But it will take some time.
“You’ll see that number start to get better,” Blackley said. “They’re starting to get a lot more young good hitters coming through because they’re facing a lot these pitchers now that have made it pretty deep into their careers in America where there’s Double A, Triple A. That just makes the hitting better. Even if they get dominated at first, they start to get better.”
Baseball interest in Australia has recently grown to the point to where Major League Baseball helped found the Australian Baseball League, which goes on during the MLB offseason. Major Leaguers like Blackley would go back to Australia to pitch in order to stay in shape. But players there have a different look at Blackley when he pitched in the ABL.
“I noticed that I pitched in Australia this offseason and guys were pretty pumped up in the box looking to get a hit off me,” Blackley said. “There’s a little bit more pressure on me pitching over there. Everyone watching expects you to strike them out, everyone. They definitely hold me to a higher standard if I’m out there pitching even though I’m out there throwing offseason. They expect me to dominate and it’s not realistic.”
Their profiles have grown as professional athletes in Australia, some more than others. Their presence in the sport has truly helped grow baseball there. Trent Oeltjen has a little league near his home where teams there replicate the MLB teams that Oeltjen played for such as the Arizona Diamondbacks and Los Angeles Dodgers.
“I did a few more TV interviews and radio interviews but still to the general public,” Moylan said. “I was still just a regular guy walking down the street.”
“This didn’t happen in the past,” Blackley said. “It wasn’t a big deal at all. The people in my sport tried to make a bigger deal out of me. I think they were trying to promote the sport.”
“It’s funny because there’s a band in Australia that’s one of my favorite bands and the main guy out of that band is a huge baseball fan. And we got along like a house on fire. I hung out with him almost every week. I went on tour with him. He’s a massive Oriole fan. But he’s now an A’s fan as well but he says, ‘I can go for you against the Orioles if your pitching.’ Now he’s like, ‘I’m an O’s fan and an A’s fan, BUT, if they’re head to head I’m an O’s fan. If you’re pitching I’m an A’s fan.’”
There are many more Australians playing professional baseball in the minor leagues now than before so it’s only a matter of time until their presence makes a similar impact in Major League Baseball as Latin America has over the year, whether or not that impact grows Australia’s interest in baseball remains to be seen.
“I think it lifts the profile of baseball amongst people who are interested in baseball,” Moylan said. “It’s not going to make adventure to people who are Aussie Rules Football fans and have not watched a baseball game. It’s not something that people grew up on.”
With the conclusion of the 2013 World Baseball Classic, which saw the Dominican Republic winning the title in the championship game over Puerto Rico, the International Baseball Federation (IBAF) has updated its Men’s Baseball World Rankings.
As a result of Australia’s poor showing it has been dropped from 10th to 13th.
Eric Bynum/BaseballdeWorld reports the following:-
With the update the results from the 2013 World Baseball Classic are replacing the results from the 2009 World Baseball Classic in the Men’s Baseball World Rankings.
New WBC and IBAF World Champion Dominican Republic made the biggest leap, going from 13 to 7, as the team of manager Tony Pena replaced 55.02 points from 2009 with 300.00 points for winning the title. The Dominican Republic has not been in the top 10 of the year-end rankings since its introduction in 2008.
World Baseball Classic runner up Puerto Rico also moved into the top 10 of the Men’s Baseball Ranking, climbing from 12 to 8 (2009: 82.98 points for WBC; 2013: 240.00 points for WBC).
At the top of the standings Cuba, USA and Japan maintained their positions. However Cuba and the United States both will lose 250 points during the 2013 season, as tournament results from the 2009 cycle (IBAF Baseball World Cup, IBAF 16U Baseball World Championship) will be taken off in the fall.
Chinese Taipei, which already led all teams in points for 2012, moved from 5 to 4 thanks to their qualification for the second round at the 2013 World Baseball Classic.
Surprise semi-finalist The Netherlands climbed from 7 to 5, their best position in the Men’s Baseball Rankings since their year-end 5th position in 2011.
Canada remains in 6th, followed by the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Korea and Venezuela, which round out the top 10. With Cuba, USA, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Venezuela, COPABE/IBAF America is represented with five countries in the top 10 of the Men’s Baseball Rankings.
Korea suffered the biggest drop, losing 184.98 points due to their ninth-place finish at the 2013 WBC. In 2009 Korea had reached the championship game, which they had lost to Japan.
By John Paul Morosi/foxsports
After Team USA was eliminated from the World Baseball Classic, we heard the usual lines about the inability of Americans to meet expectations in the tournament.
That’s not entirely accurate.
After unexpectedly eliminating Venezuela in the first round and the U.S. in the second, the Puerto Ricans pulled off an even bigger upset Sunday night. Behind starting pitcher Mario Santiago, who spent last season with SK Wyverns of the Korean Baseball Organization, Puerto Rico stunned twice-defending champion Japan, 3-1, to earn a spot in Tuesday’s championship game.
The Puerto Ricans will meet the winner of Monday’s semifinal between the Dominican Republic and The Netherlands. Considering they were enormous underdogs when the tournament began, the Puerto Rican players could say that they don’t care which team they play.
But that would be a lie.
“Of course, we’d like to play the Dominican,” Puerto Rican shortstop Mike Aviles said of their Caribbean rivals, who won the teams’ first two meetings in this WBC. “Everybody knows that.”
The Dutch have had most-charming-story status in this WBC, but it might be time to reevaluate. While The Netherlands claimed the IBAF World Cup as recently as 2011, Puerto Rico hasn’t won an international baseball championship since the 2000 Caribbean World Series — a yearly event to which its winter league champion has an automatic bid.
Last week, the Puerto Ricans were five outs from elimination against Team Italy before rallying to win. Sunday, they beat the WBC’s preeminent team even though three of their first four pitchers — Santiago, Jose De La Torre and Randy Fontanez — have never thrown a pitch in the major leagues.
“I hope they root for us in the championship game,” Aviles said. “We’re the underdogs. No one picked us to leave the Puerto Rico (first-round) pool. Everybody thought the Dominican and Venezuela were going to leave. Throughout the whole thing, we believed in ourselves.”
Aviles, who was born and raised in New York, is a U.S. citizen. So are his teammates who were born on the island, by virtue of Puerto Rico’s status as a U.S. territory. Debate persists in Puerto Rico over how seriously the commonwealth should pursue statehood. No one knows how a divided U.S. Congress would handle the matter if it reached Washington.
In sports, though, Puerto Rico operates as a nation unto itself. Puerto Rico has its own baseball federation and, thus, its own team in the WBC. Aviles and manager Edwin Rodriguez each referred to Puerto Rico as a “country” during interviews Sunday. After such an historic win, that was appropriate. The “small little place of about 4 million people,” as Aviles described it, is the first team to eliminate Japan in WBC play.
U.S. fans in search of a rooting interest should note that every Puerto Rican run in Sunday’s game was driven in by a player born on the mainland: Aviles delivered a tone-setting RBI single in the first inning, and Alex Rios — the native of Coffee, Ala. — struck the clinching two-run homer in the seventh.
“My mom and dad were born in Puerto Rico, my grandparents were born in Puerto Rico,” Aviles said. “I’ve always said, if I had an opportunity to play for the USA or Puerto Rico, I’d always pick Puerto Rico. It’s my heritage. It’s who I am. It’s what I’ve been my whole life. I’ve been Puerto Rican. Regardless of whether I was born and raised there, it’s my identity.”
Amid hopes that the WBC will grow the sport in non-traditional baseball countries — Brazil, China, Italy, The Netherlands — Puerto Rico needs this tournament, too, and will benefit immensely from what has occurred over the past week. Major League Baseball already treats Puerto Rico as a state for the purposes of the amateur draft — which generally works against young players on the island. Rather than enjoy (lucrative) free-agent rights like their peers in Venezuela and the Dominican Republic, signing bonuses for Puerto Ricans are more tightly controlled through the draft system.
The appeal of other sports, such as basketball, also has limited the number of Puerto Rican players arriving to the big leagues. The end result is that just five Puerto Rican-born pitchers — starter Jonathan Sanchez and relievers Javier Lopez, J.C. Romero, Xavier Cedeño and Jonathan Albaladejo — appeared in the majors last year. Of that group, only Romero and Cedeño are pitching in the WBC.
(That said, it’s not as if the Puerto Ricans have deployed a semipro lineup in the WBC. Leadoff man Angel Pagan just signed a $40 million contract, Carlos Beltran is one of the elite switch-hitters of his time, and Yadier Molina is, in the words of Rodriguez and Santiago, “the best catcher in the world.”)
Rodriguez said he addressed the state of baseball in Puerto Rico during his first team meeting. “The last 10 or 15 years, Puerto Rican baseball had been a little bit down,” Rodriguez said. “I think that a good performance from the team in this tournament will put Puerto Rican baseball back on the map — and I think we already accomplished that.
“Everybody talks about the draft, which started in 1989 in Puerto Rico. If you had told me five, seven years ago — right after the draft started in Puerto Rico — that that was part of not having more big leaguers, I would say yes. But that was more than 20 years ago. We haven’t been able to make adjustments. I don’t blame the draft. I have to blame the system in Puerto Rico. We have to take responsibility. We have to make adjustments. This game is about adjustments. We have to make that happen.”
Winning has a way of doing that. The young eyes in San Juan, Carolina and Ponce must be mesmerized by the sight of their countrymen humbling the world’s biggest baseball stars.
“What we’re doing here is starting to give the little kids more hope that good things can happen, good players can come out of that small little area,” Aviles said. “It’s a small little island, but that doesn’t mean it has to be forgotten about.”
One more win, and they’ll be telling stories about this team for generations. And if it’s against the Dominican … well, that will make the fairytale better. Only in America, indeed.
Australian Umpire Paul Hyham (left) has been appointed to the World Baseball Classic Semi-Finals and Championship Game.
By Trish Quayle/ABF
Following his successful performance through WBC Exhibition Games (Florida), Round One (Puerto Rico) and Round Two (Florida), Paul has been appointed the following games for the finals series this week at AT&T Park, San Francisco:
First Semi Final: Sunday 17 March 6:00pm, Puerto Rico v Japan, RIGHT FIELD.
Second Semi Final: Monday 18 March 6:00pm (Tuesday 19 March 12noon ADST) The Netherlands v Dominican Republic, THIRD BASE.
Championship Game: Tuesday 19 March 5:00pm (Wednesday 20 March 11:00am ADST) TBD, FIRST BASE.
The ABF and the umpiring community are very proud of Paul’s achievements and we congratulate him on his international success.
Puerto Rico holds on to top USA 4-3. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
By Jerry Crasnick/ESPN.com
MIAMI — The United States was in the process of going down meekly to Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic on Friday when a scout in attendance acknowledged the obvious. “I think these guys are ready to get back to their camps,” he said. “Especially the guys on contending teams.”
This is not entirely true, it turns out. In the late innings, Team USA mounted a charge and came one clutch hit away from earning an all-expenses paid trip to San Francisco. But that hit never came, and the U.S. lost 4-3 to cap another disappointing appearance in the Classic. While Japan, the Netherlands, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico prepare to square off at AT&T Park in the semifinals beginning Sunday, the Americans will be watching the proceedings from afar. Or, just as likely, not watching at all.
That development came as a crushing disappointment to Cincinnati second baseman Brandon Phillips, who won’t be appearing in any Chamber of Commerce ads anytime soon for the Reds’ spring training home in Goodyear, Ariz.
“I’ve got to go back to Goodyear, which I don’t want to go back to, so it sucks, man,” Phillips lamented. “It sucks bad. I wanted to go to San Francisco so bad.”
When the Team USA players scatter to Goodyear and Maryvale, Viera, Port Charlotte and numerous other Florida and Arizona locales this weekend, they will take along warm memories of their two-week WBC bonding experience. They claim that they care and act as if they care and vow to spread the word to their teammates that the Classic is one heck of an entertaining diversion for two weeks in March.
But to this point, the U.S. is making a habit of standing forlornly in the dugout and watching as other nations’ representatives wave flags and jump around the infield in celebration.
For the third straight time, the U.S. calls it a day at the WBC without sniffing the finals. In the inaugural 2006 tournament, Team USA failed to survive the second round. In 2009, the Americans bowed out with a 9-4 loss to Japan in the semis. This year things began promisingly enough, but back-to-back losses to Puerto Rico and the Dominican evened the United States’ overall record in the Classic at 10-10.
Maybe the tournament is serving its intended purpose if it’s spurring interest in Japan, the Latin locales and up-and-coming baseball countries such as Italy and the Netherlands. But if American baseball officials want their team to have more of an impact in future Classics, questions need to be asked about logistical or roster makeup issues that might be putting Team USA at a disadvantage.
While the Dominicans treat these games like a life-and-death experience and celebrate like Little Leaguers in Williamsport, the Americans refrain from showing emotion because they’re intent on “respecting the game.” While Puerto Rican manager Edwin Rodriguez is less afraid of making a move because it might hurt somebody’s feelings, U.S. manager Joe Torre has to balance the desire to win with a mandate to make sure each player is handled in the manner prescribed by his individual club. And as more observers have wondered of late, should participation in the WBC be mandatory rather than optional?
They’re all valid questions, yet Torre reacted peevishly when asked if there is some logistical element to the Classic that has contributed to three straight U.S. letdowns. He preferred to chalk up the latest result to the baseball gods, or the twists of fate that accompany baseball in a small sample size.
“John Elway had to win a Super Bowl for everybody to consider him a great, great player,” Torre said. “It doesn’t always happen. Ernie Banks never was in a World Series. It doesn’t mean he wasn’t a great player. It’s just what happens in a short series.
“It’s not easy to do. The one thing I’ve always talked to my players about is you want to make people happy and have people respect you, but to me it’s more important to respect each other, because you’re the only ones that know how tough it is to do what you do.”
Nevertheless, one sequence in Friday’s game was particularly instructive. USA starter Ryan Vogelsong was pitching well and had thrown 73 pitches, or seven short of his 80-pitch limit, with two out in the sixth. But Torre went to the mound and pulled him, in part because he wanted to make sure that Vogelsong was in fine working order when he rejoins the San Francisco Giants. Torre was going to push the envelope with only one pitcher in this tournament and it was Blue Jays knuckleballer R.A. Dickey.
“Even though there’s a pitch limit, it didn’t mean we were going to get there,” Torre said. “When you have [starters] going from 65 to 80 pitches, in that regard it’s still spring training, and we weren’t going to push anybody.”
The decision to pull Vogelsong backfired when Torre called on Cleveland reliever Vinnie Pestano and stuck with him on a night when he clearly didn’t have it. Pestano walked the bases loaded, walked the lefty-hitting Carlos Rivera to force in a run when Torre chose not to bring in Jeremy Affeldt, and gave up a two-run double to Andy Gonzalez to put the U.S. in a 4-0 hole.
The Americans never recovered, in part because of a failure to hit pitchers with undistinguished résumés. Nelson Figueroa pitched his heart out Friday night, but we’re talking about a 38-year-old journeyman who is 20-35 with a 4.55 ERA over nine big league seasons. Then Giovanni Soto, Jose De La Torre, Xavier Cedeno, Fernando Cabrera and J.C. Romero took it to the house. It was one thing when the Dominican Republic shut down Team USA with a bullpen led by Fernando Rodney, Octavio Dotel, Kelvin Herrera, Santiago Casilla and Pedro Strop. This was something else entirely.
Maybe things would have been different if David Wright, the driving force in the Team USA lineup, hadn’t gone down with an intercostal strain before the 3-1 loss to the Dominicans on Thursday. But the U.S. batting order still featured enough talent and big names to produce more offense than it did in the Classic. Wright’s grand slam against Italy during the first round in Phoenix was the only U.S. homer of the entire tournament. In the three games against Puerto Rico and the Dominican in Miami, the Americans batted .252 with four extra-base hits.
“Certainly we didn’t swing the bats great,” said outfielder Ryan Braun. “There are no excuses, and there’s no rhyme or reason for it. I think when you’re not swinging the bats well collectively, everybody tries a little bit harder to pick each other up. It’s human nature.”
While American baseball fans are still deciding whether they want to embrace the tournament, the games certainly are a treat to watch, and the players who participate universally rave about the experience. Wright so desperately wanted to keep playing, he practically had to be dragged off the field. And Braun and Phillips said they will be happy to spread the World Baseball Classic gospel to anyone who inquires.
“I didn’t know how big baseball was in other countries,” Phillips said. “When you see other countries play, you’re like, ‘Wow, this is why I love playing this game.’ You just see how everybody’s passion is totally different than in our country. I can’t wait to go back and just tell everybody how much fun I really had. If they have the chance, they should really do it.”
Maybe a new wave of participants led by Bryce Harper, Mike Trout & Co. will finally get Team USA over the top four years from now. Or perhaps the Japanese and the Latin countries are more cut out for the event and will continue to dominate Classics to come. The Americans have four years between now and the 2017 event to try to figure out the answer.