Bill Kostroun/Associated Press file photo
Bill Kostroun/Associated Press file photo
PHOENIX – The game is supposed to be America’s national pastime, but the United States has not fared well in the World Baseball Classic.
Joe Torre is putting his manager’s uniform back on to lead Team USA in this year’s competition, but he cautions that there are reasons the U.S. has not won, or even made it to the title game, in the first two editions of the worldwide competition.
Torre, speaking Monday at a news conference in Phoenix, said players usually use spring training to get ready physically for the long major league season, slowly working in the mental edge along the way. But with the WBC, they are asked to get that competitive edge in a hurry against countries that take this very seriously.
“I think a big part of it is the mental preparation for a postseason type of atmosphere,” Torre said.
Japan won the first two championships.
There is more than a little grumbling among managers who lose players for two or three weeks at a crucial time when they are supposed to be putting together a cohesive team for the coming big league season. But, officially, MLB is a big supporter of this event, so that mutes the criticism. Those players don’t just go to Team USA, but to Venezuela, Mexico, Japan, Canada, even The Netherlands.
The team hit the hardest this year is the Milwaukee Brewers, who will lose 14 players during spring training, 11 of them from their 40-man roster.
“I get why a player would want to do it. I understand that,” Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said. “And we’re fine with them going and doing that, but it just happens that we’re getting hit with a lot of guys. We’re missing both catchers. It’s really important to us. We’ll just have to deal with it.”
Torre said he had the same reaction back in 2006 when the first WBC was held.
“I’m manager of the Yankees, and I’m saying, ‘Oh my goodness, what is this all about?’ Because they’re taking our players away.”
Now, he steps away from his duties as executive vice president of baseball operations in the commissioner’s office to try to build a winning team, while at the same time giving the players, especially the pitchers, the same amount of work they’d get if they stayed in spring training. Torre has enlisted retired pitching great Greg Maddux to help him.
“Greg has talked to each and every one of them to get their ideas about what they want to get accomplished,” Torre said.
Team USA will have a workout on March 4 in Scottsdale, followed by exhibition games against the Chicago White Sox and Colorado Rockies before beginning round-robin play March 8 against Mexico. Canada and Italy are the other two teams in the group. Team USA’s round-robin games are at Chase Field, home of the Arizona Diamondbacks.
The second round will be held in Miami, with the semifinals and finals set for AT&T Park in San Francisco.
Torre said he has spoken to every player involved with the team.
“I wanted to gauge not only the interest but the excitement of playing with ‘USA’ across your chest,” he said.
He said every player, including a few who wound up bowing out, said that was the greatest enticement to participate.
“I feel pretty comfortable with the team we’ve put together,” Torre said, “based on the fact, ability for one, and the fact that I think they’re going to be ready to do this when we need to.”
The U.S. roster includes outfielders Ryan Braun, Adam Jones, Giancarlo Stanton, Shane Victorino and Ben Zobrist; infielders Willie Bloomquist, Brandon Phillips, Jimmy Rollins, Mark Teixeira and David Wright; and catchers J.P. Arencibia, Jonathan Lucroy and Joe Mauer.
The pitchers are, alphabetically, Jeremy Affeldt, Heath Bell, Mitchell Boggs, Steve Cishek, Tim Collins, R.A. Dickey, Luke Gregerson, Derek Holland, Craig Kimbrel, Kris Medlen, Chris Perez, Glen Perkins, Vinnie Pestano and Ryan Vogelsong.
Gio Gonzalez had intended to come along but announced he is staying with the Washington Nationals, at least for now. He might be added should Team USA make it to the second round in Florida, where the Nationals conduct their spring training.
Torre hasn’t managed since he retired from the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2010. He has no interest in the grind of another major league season in that job, but he gladly will accept a three-week chore of running Team USA, jokingly comparing it to the role of a grandparent who after spoiling the kids gives them back to their parents.
On a serious note, though, he recalled how he felt as New York Yankees manager in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
“It was at that time I realized that baseball represented more than just entertainment on the field, that we meant a lot to a lot of people,” Torre said, “and our responsibility was far beyond just playing the game. It really struck me, and I said to my players in our first meeting ‘This NY on my cap represents more than the Yankees. It’s the game, and people need this game to hide out from their problems.’
“This is going to be a similar emotion but certainly not the sadness that was part of that,” he said. “But I think emotionally, once you put that uniform on, it’s responsibility. It’s not necessarily the winning part of it; I think it’s just the way you carry yourself and the way you go about it. The one thing I’ve preached to my players is you represent yourself and in this case you represent your country. And you certainly want to leave everybody a good taste in their mouth.”
The team to beat will be Japan.
Torre said that not only their ability, but the “discipline, the motivation, the whole nine yards, the way they go about it” makes the Japanese so good.
“The fact they rarely make mistakes,” he said. “Whatever sport you’re looking at it’s usually the team that makes the least mistakes that has the most success.”
Yes, he said, “Japan’s been the boss here the first two times but in a short series, and I’m fortunate to have had the experience on the winning end and the losing end, anything can happen.”