The question was benign, and hardly inappropriate. Jim Leyland, who is managing a team — the United States in the World Baseball Classic — for the first time in four years at age 72, was asked during a media session Friday at Marlins Park what it would mean to him to win this tournament.
He didn’t really even answer the question, yet his reply was revealing. Because it went directly to his team’s sensitive spot, to its burden.
“One thing I’ve really tried to stay away from is getting all caught up over the fact the United States has never won it,” is how a bristling Leyland chose to answer a query not directly about that, his voice rising. “Every player in that clubhouse knows we’ve never won it. I know we’ve never won it. You know we’ve never won it.”
And so there is your backdrop as the United States prepares to play the defending WBC champion Dominican Republic on Saturday at 6:30 p.m. in the sold-out signature game of this four-team Pool C competition.
Marlins Park is hosting the only first-round games in the United States, with others in Seoul, Tokyo and Jalisco, Mexico. Round-robin play in Miami ends Sunday, unless Monday is needed for a tiebreaker.
Eight teams from the first-round pools will advance, and then four surviving nations will advance to the March 20-22 championship round at Dodger Stadium.
Team USA won its first game Friday night against Colombia 3-2 in 10 innings, so Leyland’s men have a little less pressure heading into the game against the Dominican Republic.
“It’s great to be here and show up,” as Marlins star Giancarlo Stanton, USA in script across his chest, put it, “but we’re here to perform and win.”
It is rather incredible that, in this fourth WBC, the growing story line still is of the Americans’ failures at their own game.
There might be occasional debate whether it was Abner Doubleday who truly invented baseball on a summer day 178 years ago in Cooperstown, New York, but there is no arguing the game called “America’s Pastime” was born in the USA.
And American-born players still comprise 72.5 percent of Major League Baseball (based on 2016 Opening Day rosters), so the depth of talent available to Team USA dwarfs that of other nations.
That is your starting point to measure the surprise and disappointment of past failures of U.S. teams in this event.
It’s true the sample size is small. Still, this is the fourth WBC and Team USA not only has yet to win a championship, but also it has yet to earn even a medal by finishing in the top three of 16 countries.
In the first WBC in 2006 the United States rolled out a dream team including Derek Jeter, Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez. But Japan reigned. Japan won it all again in 2009, and the Dominicans triumphed in 2013. Team USA has been the definition of mediocre, with an overall record of 10-10 in the first three WBCs.
It’s sort of embarrassing, actually. And that’s a feeling this U.S. team needs to make go away.
“There’s a lot of passion and pride on the line,” said Christian Yelich, another Marlins in a USA jersey.
“We’re going after it hard, man,” said U.S. catcher Jonathan Lucroy, of the Rangers. “This is serious. This no joke.”
Pitcher Chris Archer of the Rays, who started for the United States on Friday night, puts America finally winning this in a political framework, seeing a healing power.
“Given the timing and circumstances of our country,” he said this week, “it’s a great opportunity for us to temporarily show that we are unified, regardless of the turmoil and things going on.”
The thing is, do Americans care that much about the World Baseball Classic? The answer is: Not as much as fans of the other 15 countries care.
Marlins fans undoubtedly want Stanton to stay healthy, first, and win a trophy, second. And most Americans are too busy filling out brackets and following March Madness this time of year to immerse themselves in an international baseball event held every few years.
The WBC was invented in the wake of the IOC dropping baseball as an Olympic sport, and it has worked. They should have it every two years. It has fast become a major, legitimate event, and as a bonus it’s a welcome break from the tedium of spring training.
Yelich said he wasn’t even aware WBC participants were paid; he said yes to Team USA thinking he was doing it for free. But not everyone is like that. The U.S. team is never as strong as it might be because some stars always decline. No-thanks stars this time included Mike Trout, Clayton Kershaw and Bryce Harper.
Even so, this U.S. roster is thought to be the deepest and best America has ever had in a WBC — which of course only increases the burden for Team USA to finally win this thing.
So, yes, we expect better, American ballplayers. Tick tock. Represent. I mean, it’s not like we invented the damned sport or anything.