Christian Yelich was admiring one of his custom-designed Louisville Slugger bats with the red, white and blue Team USA logo etched into the trademark when the topic turned to money.
When it was mentioned to Yelich that players in the World Baseball Classic are paid to play, his response was: “We are?”
It was news to Yelich, a Marlins outfielder who was selected to represent the United States in the international baseball tournament.
“I’d play for free, are you kidding?” Yelich said.
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Yelich, Marlins teammate Giancarlo Stanton and a large ensemble of All-Stars from throughout the majors will converge on Marlins Park to take part in the WBC, an international baseball tournament that is growing in popularity.
Saturday’s showdown between the U.S. and the Dominican Republic — two baseball powers — sold out in no time. Entering the WBC play, Marlins Park has been sold out for baseball five times since opening in 2012.
“I think it’s the fastest sellout at Marlins Park for any event,” Marlins president David Samson said. “Maybe [televangelist] Joel Osteen sold out faster. It’s the first domestic sellout of a non-finals game in the WBC.”
Teams from Colombia and Canada will also be playing at Marlins Park, one of four first-round venues, during the tournament that stretches from Thursday to Sunday. If necessary, a tiebreaker game will be played Monday. Other first-round games are being played in Japan, Mexico and South Korea.
“WBC and Miami, they have to be together,” Samson said. “It’s perfect.”
It’s the fourth time the WBC has been staged and the third time Miami has hosted one of the rounds. A total of 16 countries are taking part, with the final four teams advancing to the championship round March 20-22 at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles.
Samson said more than 135,000 tickets have already been sold to the six games being played at Marlins Park and expects the final count to reach 160,000. When the event was last held in Miami in 2013, 113,000 total tickets were sold.
“It shows the global reach of Miami and baseball,” Samson said.
New Marlins pitcher Edinson Volquez will not play for the Dominican Republic, but is scheduled to start against Team USA on Saturday. That means he could end up facing Yelich and Stanton, his Marlins teammates.
“Good luck,” Volquez responded with a smile when asked about a potential showdown against the two Marlins outfielders.
Volquez said Dominican fans are fired up about the WBC and expects a large turnout from them Saturday. The Dominican team won the last WBC in 2013.
“They’re kind of crazy a little bit,” Volquez said with a laugh. “We enjoy the game a different way. It’s going to be crazy down in Miami. Everybody’s coming in from different places — from New York and everywhere.”
While baseball is known as the “national pastime” in the United States, the country has yet to win the tournament. Japan won the first two tournaments. It explains why players such as Stanton and Yelich are determined to end the drought.
“We’re not just showing up to show up,” said Stanton, who also played in the 2013 WBC. “At the end of the day, it’s to win.”
Yelich has been looking forward to the tournament since October when he was invited to play.
“When they called me, I was like, ‘Hell yeah I’m in!,’” Yelich said. “Wearing a Team USA jersey for the first time is going to be awesome. I’m excited.”
Yelich said there will be pressure to win.
“I think every team has pressure,” he said. “Everyone’s representing their country. There’s obviously pressure. But, at he same time, there’s pressure every time we play baseball, just a different kind.”
During the Marlins’ Grapefruit League game on Monday, Yelich’s bat slipped from his grasp and went flying into the seats. He didn’t bother to retrieve it, letting the fan keep it as a souvenir.
It was a run-of-the-mill bat he normally swings, not one of his precious Team USA bats sent to him by Louisville Slugger for the WBC.
“If i threw one of those,” Yelich said, “I would have gotten it back.”