Why U.S. stars chose to play for Team USA in World Baseball Classic

MIAMI -- First, Jonathan Lucroy made his sales pitch. Then he went for the swag.

During last summer's All-Star Game in San Diego, Lucroy spotted MLB executive Joe Torre and Team USA World Baseball Classic manager Jim Leyland in a hallway outside the Petco Park clubhouse and lobbied for a spot in the 2017 Classic. His plea was about as subtle as a foul tip off the cup.

"Sign me up for the WBC now,'' Lucroy told Torre and Leyland. "I want to play. I'm in. If you need a catcher, I'm there.''

Eight months later, Lucroy's work station in the Texas Rangers' clubhouse is crammed with color-coordinated gear. He pulls a pair of red, white and blue spikes from his locker, then reaches into a box and retrieves a chest protector with a patriotic motif.

"We're going after it hard,'' he says. "This is serious, man. It's no joke.''

As Team USA strives to amend its disappointing history in the WBC, the conversation inevitably drifts toward players who chose to skip the event. Bryce Harper and Mookie Betts are at their respective team camps, and Mike Trout is still musing about his possible involvement in 2021. And Clayton Kershaw, Chris Sale, Madison Bumgarner and Noah Syndergaard are among the starting pitchers who decided to take a pass.

Amid the absences and the apathy, players who signed up for the Classic want everyone to know how passionate they are. Miami Marlins outfielder Christian Yelich wasn't even motivated by the free equipment -- although the blue bat that Louisville Slugger just shipped him was a nice fringe benefit.

"There's a lot of passion and pride on the line,'' Yelich said. "I think everyone is excited. Nobody had to do this. Nobody was forced to play in this thing. Everybody is there by choice and excited to represent their country.''

Team USA participants are well aware that America has not won a medal since the WBC's inception in 2006. The United States has a 10-10 overall record in its three previous Classic appearances.

During the last edition, the squad came under scrutiny for appearing emotionally detached at times. While players from the Dominican Republic waved flags and rushed to home plate to celebrate each run, infielder Willie Bloomquist said his father would have pulled him off the field if he had conducted himself that way.

The ambivalence of some U.S.-born players reflects the mixed signals they receive from fans in their respective cities. It's hard for the American sporting public to get too revved up over the WBC when the entire country is preoccupied with March Madness tournament brackets.

"The feedback I've gotten on Twitter is, 'Don't get hurt out there,''' said San Francisco Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford. "Our fans are rooting for the Giants. They want to make sure I'm going to be healthy for the Giants, and they don't care as much about the WBC.''

Predictably, players are listening to their bodies in camp and changing course if injuries arise. St. Louis Cardinals infielder Matt Carpenter bowed out with a stiff back late last week and was replaced on the Team USA roster by Pittsburgh's Josh Harrison.

"There's a lot of passion and pride on the line. I think everyone is excited. Nobody had to do this. Nobody was forced to play in this thing. Everybody is there by choice and excited to represent their country."
Team USA outfielder Christian Yelich

"This is our career, our job,'' said Astros reliever Luke Gregerson. "It's what pays the bills. At the end of the day, when you play in an event like this, you have to be cautious. You don't want to get hurt, because we need to be ready for the season. But at the same time, there are so many countries and it's played on such a big scale, you want to do your best to represent your country well and win.''

A sampling of players on the Team USA roster reveals a variety of reasons for taking part. Lucroy played four years ago, and he immediately vowed it wouldn't be a singular experience in his career. He loved the "crazy'' atmosphere surrounding the event, even if the games in Miami felt like road games because so many fans were cheering for the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico.

Cleveland reliever Andrew Miller welcomes the opportunity to pitch in some competitive games right away and flush the disappointment from the Indians' World Series loss to the Chicago Cubs. He's also looking forward to reconnecting with Leyland, who managed him during his first big-league stop with the Detroit Tigers in 2006.

"It's a chance for me to go full-circle with him,'' Miller said. "Anytime you're around him, it's just a trip. He's such a character. Whether it's just being around him and shooting the breeze or telling stories, it's something I'm looking forward to.''

Shortly after learning that he would be taking part, Yelich swapped texts with Colorado Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado. Arenado, in turn, exchanged texts with Crawford -- who has the same agent -- and they ruminated on how cool it would be to turn the left side of the Team USA infield into a hit-free zone.

Buster Posey, Crawford's San Francisco teammate, got his first taste of international competition as a member of the USA Junior Olympic team in 2004. He logged a 1.23 ERA as a pitcher during a tournament in Taiwan. When the last Classic rolled around in 2013, Posey was coming off a long and taxing postseason and wasn't far removed from a home plate collision that resulted in a devastating injury to his left leg. He was too preoccupied with getting off to a strong start to accept a change in his routine in camp.

Now Posey, 29, is on board with the Classic even though it will take him away from Giants' camp for an undetermined period and cut into his bonding time with new closer Mark Melancon and some of the young pitchers on the staff. He brought his wife, Kristen, and their 5-year-old twins, Lee and Addison, to Miami for the opening round.

"One of the draws to me is, I love baseball, and I've loved it for a long time,'' Posey said. "We can play a unique role as ambassadors and spread the game. Who's to say there's not a kid in China who will fall in love with baseball by watching this tournament? That's a draw for me -- maybe spreading the game to other places.''