Leading Team USA an emotional endeavor for Torre
TAMPA, Fla. -- Joe Torre has been pretty much every place and done almost everything in this game he has devoted himself to for the last 53 years. Still, after playing at the highest level and managing in the World Series and in All-Star Games and becoming comfortable on the biggest stage the sport can offer, he's prepared for a different kind of emotion when he puts a jersey with "Team USA" across the front.
Yes, it's about winning, but that's only the beginning of what he calls the "responsibility" of representing his country. He's certain every player on every team in the World Baseball Classic, regardless of country, age, experience, is going to have similar feelings.
"I know it's not going to hit me until I put the uniform on," he said.
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And it's these emotions that make the World Baseball Classic special. This isn't about teammates or family or money, or any of the other things that typically motivate players. This is about country.
Even the most cynical of players, even the players you'd least expect to be moved by patriotism, admit to being moved when it's about country. It was clear in that first Classic in 2006 that the players were having the time of their life. From Roger Clemens and Derek Jeter to Chipper Jones and Ken Griffey Jr., they loved being on a team with the best of the best.
For years, they'd watched these opponents from across a diamond, occasionally crossing paths at All-Star Games or charity events. The World Baseball Classic was different. This was the chance to be a true teammate on a squad that played together for a while and participated in games that truly mattered.
Beyond those feelings was a larger idea, that of country. Those emotions were especially true for players of smaller countries, from the Dominican Republic and Panama to Puerto Rico and Mexico. But every American player feels it, too, and almost all of them have said it was stronger than they ever expected.
Brandon Phillips called the invitation to play for Team USA "a dream come true." He has no idea. Years since that first Classic, Vernon Wells, Jason Varitek, Al Leiter and many other members of Team USA remember their participation as one of the highlights of their careers.
Team USA was eliminated in the second round of play in 2006 and in the semifinals in '09. Torre has zero doubt that his players will be as motivated as they can be to write a different ending this time. If Team USA gets deep into the tournament, it'll be interesting to see how television ratings are impacted, and if the country gets excited about the event.
With that goal in mind, Torre and Team USA general manager Joe Garagiola Jr. took a pragmatic approach to roster building. They shaped it similar to the way a regular-season roster would be shaped.
Rather than stacking depth upon depth at various positions, they picked a starting lineup and then called three utility players -- Ben Zobrist, Shane Victorino and Willie Bloomquist -- who can play a variety of positions at a high level. There'll be a pair of backup catchers in Jonathan Lucroy and J.P. Arencibia. There are still some disadvantages. For instance, the Japanese team will have had a month together when the World Baseball Classic begins. When asked about that, Torre joked, "Yeah, but they're going to have to give us two runs a game."
In this country, there has been way too much attention paid to the players not participating. If you think Torre will be short on talent, check out this starting lineup:
• Jimmy Rollins, SS
• Brandon Phillips, 2B
• Ryan Braun, LF
• Giancarlo Stanton, RF
• David Wright, 3B
• Adam Jones, CF
• Mark Teixeira, 1B
• Joe Mauer, C
That's not just a really good starting lineup. That group of players will be tremendously fun to watch compete and interact with one another. If you are a baseball fan, these will be games you probably want to see.
Torre's pitching staff is designed to win, too, with R.A. Dickey at the front of a terrific rotation and Craig Kimbrel at the back of a solid bullpen. In short, there's no reason this team can't win.
To those of us who have come to admire Torre through the years, this World Baseball Classic is another chance to watch him lead a team. Few managers have been better at gaining the trust of his players and getting them to tune out the outside noise and play with a singular purpose.
It's impossible not to get excited about Team USA when Torre begins talking about how fired up his players are, but there surely are similar feelings on every team. The World Baseball Classic was a tremendous idea from the beginning, an example of what happens when players and owners work together and share a vision.
It's about growing the sport in new directions, but it's also about seeing some of the best players on earth competing for something they care about. And they do care. And they'll care even more when they put their country's uniform on.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.