It's gold medal or bust for Team USA in Classic
Team takes new approach under Torre after disappointments in 2006 and '09
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The players who comprise Team USA will begin gathering from all over the country on Sunday, with the first workout as a group at Salt River Fields on Monday afternoon.
The World Baseball Classic is set to begin in Asia this weekend, and the U.S. will set out on its quest to win the tournament for the first time next Friday night at Chase Field against the highly competitive and archrival Mexico. The Americans play Italy and Canada in succession at the home of the D-backs the following two days.
The U.S. didn't make it out of the second round in 2006, and it lost in the semifinals in '09 to Japan, which won the first two tournaments. Baseball was born in the U.S., and it is America's game. With Joe Torre having come out of retirement to manage and construct the team, the goal this time is to really prove it.
"The team they put together, I think, is a great team," said Shane Victorino, the Red Sox right fielder who's among a group of six members of the 2013 American team with previous experience in the Classic. "That's where it all starts. I think Torre really wants to win it all and do what it takes to win it all. That, in itself, I think, is a good start. From there, we've just got to go out there and let it happen, have fun doing it."
Victorino, left-fielder Ryan Braun of the Brewers, shortstop Jimmy Rollins of the Phillies, third baseman David Wright of the Mets and reliever Heath Bell of the D-backs all played for manager Davey Johnson in 2009 and were eliminated when they lost to Japan, 9-4, at Dodger Stadium. That team was defeated three times in the tournament, twice by Venezuela.
First baseman Mark Teixeira of the Yankees was on the 2006 team that was managed by Buck Martinez and didn't make it out of the second round at Anaheim because of a run differential won by the Japanese. The rules regarding advancing in the tournament have since been changed. The U.S. lost three times in that Classic: to Japan, Canada and the deciding game, 2-1, to Mexico.
Considering the results the first two times around, many wondered if the U.S. players took the tournament as seriously as some of the other teams, particularly Japan, Cuba and Korea. The latter are the two squads the Japanese defeated in the finals -- Cuba, 10-6, at San Diego's Petco Park in 2006, and Korea, 5-3, in a titanic 10-inning affair in Los Angeles four years ago.
"We definitely take it seriously, but there's a lot of talent out there," Teixeira said. "It's baseball, too. Any time you play a short tournament or a short series, anything can happen."
"It means a lot to us," Wright added. "Some of these other teams, they're actual teams. It's not just a bunch of individuals. We're going to try to become a team, but you have a bunch of individuals that are with different teams now. We have to come together in less than a week to form a team. Sometimes that's difficult to do."
The first two U.S. squads were more like "Dream Teams," with a pair of All-Stars at every position. As they say, there weren't enough baseballs or at bats to go around. This time, Torre has avoided that by picking a solid starting eight with two backup catchers, Victorino in the outfield and Willie Bloomquist of the D-backs and Ben Zobrist of the Rays as utility players.
Torre also called each of the prospective team members to gauge their enthusiasm for the tournament and their desire to win. He didn't want anyone on the 28-man roster who was undecided about playing. It says a lot that since the provisional rosters were announced in January, only one of those initial 27 players has dropped off the team. And that was Braves starter Kris Medlen, a last-minute addition who decided that it was more important to stay home because his wife was having a baby.
When Yankees 40-year-old left-hander Andy Pettitte and Tigers star right-hander Justin Verlander declined invitations, the 15-man pitching staff was filled out by Nationals left-handers Gio Gonzalez and Ross Detwiler.
This time around, Torre may not have the top talent at every position, but he has guys who want to play, and that may be half the battle. Will that be what it takes to win?
"I think we just have to stay together," said Bell, who in 2009 was a last-minute roster replacement for Joe Nathan. "The last time we had a good group of guys, but when we went from the second round in Miami to L.A., we had about three or four guys leave the team. That broke the nucleus, the core of the guys pulling for each other. Suddenly we were just a bunch of superstars instead of a tight-knit team. This time we have to stay together and we have to just do the little things. That's why Japan has won the last two times. They're fundamentally sound. They do the little things."
The fact that Team USA has such a short shelf life is also a big part of the problem. After the workout on Monday, they'll have exhibition games against the White Sox at Camelback Ranch on Tuesday and the Rockies at Salt River Fields on Wednesday night.
After another off day, the tournament starts in earnest. Meanwhile, the Chinese, Dutch and Italians have been training already for weeks, plus the Japanese and Koreans always get together early. Major Leaguers don't join their teams until Monday, and the three Asian teams don't have any this time around.
For teams like the U.S., Dominican Republic and Mexico, it is what is, Torre has said, but it's just another obstacle for his own team to overcome.
"You're only together for a short period of time, but you build a bond and camaraderie and chemistry pretty quick," Braun said. "You get to know each other because a lot of guys have played together in All-Star Games and stuff like that. We were definitely disappointed in the results last time. Everybody's goal was to win the tournament. That's certainly our goal and our focus this year."
Barry M. Bloom is national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow@boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.