WBC: 'Play Ball!' in any language

It's our national pastime, but the World Baseball Classic is becoming an international passion. ESPN Illustration

Italy's World Baseball Classic roster has a 39-year-old former first-round draft pick who grew up in the Bay Area (where he attended Barry Bonds' high school) and now is a true World Baseball Citizen, having pitched professionally in the U.S., Canada, Japan and Mexico (for five seasons!), plus that most exotic of destinations -- fabled Hardware City. (Hardware City is actually New Britain, Conn., just down the road from the Worldwide Leader's headquarters in Bristol.)

"This will be my 22nd season and I feel like I've gone through everything anyone else could possibly have gone through," Dan Serafini says. "Divorce. Being rich. Being poor. The ups and downs of baseball. Horrible travel. First-class travel."

Italy also has an ambidextrous pitcher who grew up in that most famed of Neapolitan cities -- Omaha, Neb. -- and who obtained his WBC eligibility by studiously documenting his lineage back to an Italian great-grandfather through birth, marriage and death certificates.

"The spelling of the family name has changed about three different times," New York Yankees prospect Pat Venditte says. "It started with an 'o' at the end. Then it went to an 'i' and now we use an 'e.'"

More importantly, Italy also has a major league infielder who actually was born and raised in Italy.

That is Seattle Mariners third baseman Alex Liddi, who grew up in San Remo, Italy, which is better known in world sport as the finish town for the annual Milan-San Remo spring classic, the longest single-day race -- 185 miles -- in pro cycling. As a kid, Liddi had to travel nearly that far every weekend to find a baseball game, albeit via motor vehicle rather than bicycle. That must have been good experience for the long minor league bus rides Liddi endured (six seasons' worth!) while slowly working his way up to finally become the first Italian player in major league history two summers ago.

"Since they saw me make the big leagues, more kids can understand there is baseball in Italy and there is a chance for everybody to make it to the highest level," Liddi says. "Hopefully, they will be playing with more confidence and looking for a goal of playing in the big leagues."

This is both the aim and the beauty of the World Baseball Classic, which began in Taiwan and Japan last weekend and opens in Puerto Rico and Arizona on Thursday. The Classic helps the game grow ever further, digging its roots deeper into Europe, Australia, China and even Brazil. And it also provides a chance for Americans to appreciate just how far the game has spread.

Italy plays the first game on U.S. soil when it meets Mexico to start Pool D play in Phoenix on Thursday afternoon (3 p.m., ET). Team USA debuts on Friday night (9 p.m., ET), also against Mexico, at Chase Field in Phoenix. All WBC games are being televised by ESPN Deportes.

The world of baseball may soon be even larger than Mr. Met's head.

A glance at Brazil's roster reveals some interesting names. Gabriel Asakura. Bruno Hirata. Daniel Matsumoto. And the superbly named Hugo Kanabushi.

Many Brazilian players on the WBC roster have Japanese lineage. This isn't unusual in Brazilian baseball, according to Cleveland Indians catcher Yan Gomes. He says when he was growing up in Brazil, 85 to 90 percent of his fellow baseball players were of Japanese descent.

America isn't the only country that spreads the gospel of baseball

Gomes was born in Sao Paulo, and spent the first 12 years of his life there learning the game of baseball in that most rabid of soccer nations. He pursued the sport further when his family moved to Florida, and last summer he became the first Brazilian to reach the major leagues. In a WBC qualifier last fall, Gomes singled in the winning run in Brazil's 1-0 upset of Panama.

He wanted to play in the WBC this spring; but after the Blue Jays traded him to Cleveland in November, Gomes decided it was best to spend all of spring training with his new team.

"It was definitely a tough decision, but my career right now is at a point where it could go either way," he says. "I need to take advantage of the opportunity."

Too bad. Brazil could have used Gomes in the just-completed first round of WBC Pool A play in Japan. Behind manager Barry Larkin and several minor league prospects such as Tampa Bay's Leonardo Reginatto and Iago Januario, plus Seattle's Pedro Okuda, Brazil nearly upset Japan before blowing a 2-1 lead in the eighth inning of an eventual 5-3 loss.

Brazil lost all three games in its pool earlier this week and didn't advance to the second round, but Gomes says the WBC still was important for the sport in his native land.

"Baseball is growing because of the WBC, but we definitely need more support from people around the country," he says. "We have so many athletes out there from around the country, and we just have to grow the sport and see what we've got. In the next five and 10 years, it could be big.

"The WBC is huge, especially seeing how much talent we have. Just imagine if we get some of the guys playing soccer. With their speed? I see it growing a lot."

Brazil will host soccer's World Cup next year and the Summer Olympics in 2016. Where does the WBC rank with those two events? "Hopefully, in the years to come, it will be almost the same," Gomes says. "Soccer is still the main sport and that's something we're not competing against. But hopefully, baseball will be growing in the right direction."

Told that he might need to become the Pele of baseball to help the sport grow that big, Gomes laughs and says, "We need everyone to want to be the Pele of baseball."

Team Mexico (and Milwaukee Brewers) pitcher Marco Estrada was driving to Mexico's exhibition game against the Dodgers in Glendale, Ariz., on Wednesday morning when a police officer pulled him over for rolling through a stop sign. Estrada, 29, has a green card, is married to an American, has two young American children, went to college at Long Beach State and has lived in the United States for almost 25 years -- "I speak better English than Spanish," he says -- but he is not yet a U.S. citizen. So, given Arizona's controversial documentation laws, Estrada says he immediately worried he could be hassled over his papers.

To his relief, the police officer asked for nothing more than his driver's license.

Despite the traffic ticket, Estrada was in a great mood Wednesday. He was able to pull on the jersey of his country, knowing he will be Mexico's starting pitcher in Saturday's game against Canada.

"I'm very proud to be Mexican," he says. "I've wanted to play on this for a long time. It means the world to me to be a part of this team."

Estrada was born in Sonora, Mexico, but recalls his mother, Silvia Mariza Estrada, moving him to California in the late '80s when he was 5 years old. (His first words, he says, were "Disneyland" and "McDonald's.") She supported him by working as a nanny, looking after other people's children and cleaning other people's houses. "She's been working her butt off her whole life," Estrada says. "I thank her for everything she's done because she's killed herself just to get me this opportunity."

Estrada says immigration rules will allow him to become a U.S. citizen when he turns 31, and that he plans to do so.

"I want the best for my kids, and I think raising them here is the best choice," he says. "It's what my mom did. I'm glad she did because if she didn't, would I be here, playing professional baseball?"

Before going Long Beach State, Estrada played junior college ball with the son of Fernando Valenzuela. And now the Mexican icon who inspired Fernando-mania (and many Mexican ballplayers as well) is Estrada's pitching coach in the WBC. Valenzuela says there are more opportunities for Mexican players to reach the majors than when he was young. And that the WBC will help develop even more chances.

"It's very important," Valenzuela says. "It's not only going to be good for the country, but for the players to come over here and play in international competition. It will be a good experience for them. It will help the young players.

"We have baseball summer and winter. I think we're the only country with professional baseball year-round. So the WBC won't only be for the country, but for the baseball to keep growing up."

Canada's WBC roster includes two MVPs (Joey Votto and Justin Morneau), one of the game's most promising young players (Toronto third baseman Brett Lawrie), a closer who finished among the top 10 in the 2011 Cy Young voting (John Axford) and a hitting coach who won three batting titles and an MVP (Larry Walker). The country has been home to Major League Baseball since 1969. Toronto has won two World Series.

But to reach this spring's WBC, Canada had to fly to Regensburg, Germany, in September and win a qualifying tournament that also included Great Britain, Germany and the Czech Republic. They fed on delicious brats, sweet mustard and sauerkraut at the tiny 500-year-old Wurstkuchl brathaus, then played baseball along the banks of the Danube.

"That was a different experience,'' says Canada center fielder Tyson Gillies, a prospect in the Phillies system. "It was the first time in Europe for a lot of the guys. So going over there and seeing baseball was different, but a lot of fun. ... I definitely enjoyed the brats."

"They did have some good beer,'' says Jimmy Van Ostrand. "We sampled a little bit of that."

The reason Canada had to play in the qualifying tournament is because it didn't win a game in the 2009 WBC. Despite having Votto, Morneau, Lawrie, Jason Bay and Matt Stairs on the team, Canada even lost to Italy that year, which just goes to prove the old Yogi Berra axiom that "In baseball, you don't know nothing."

Expenses-paid trips to Europe are fun, but the Canadians are determined to have a much different result in this WBC than in 2009.

"I view it as a chance for Canada to show that we need to be taken seriously," Gillies says. "We have a lot of great talent in Canada that gets overlooked. To be able to come here and turn some heads a bit -- hopefully, that will help some of the kids coming out of high school to get a chance. To have people say, 'Hey, they've got some talent up there,' and get them some exposure in Canada. Those are things I wish I had more of growing up."

Gillies has a 70 percent hearing loss in one ear and a 60 percent loss in the other. He learned to read lips effectively at such a young age that his parents didn't realize he had a hearing problem until he was 4 years old. (He might be the only player in the game opponents actually must guard against by holding gloves over their mouths during mound conferences.) Gillies, 24, also is a speedy center fielder who once stole 44 bases at Class A High Desert before a number of injuries slowed his career.

He's healthy this spring, though, and proudly wearing his country's jersey.

"It's an amazing feeling," Gillies says of playing alongside Morneau, Votto and so many fellow countrymen. "Growing up in Canada, baseball wasn't such a big deal. To see so many players in the minors and the majors now is crazy."

Yes, they do play more than hockey north of the border. Although Van Ostrand admits, "We did have a road hockey game a couple days ago, so I guess we still have a little of that hockey in us at heart."

Despite low ratings in the U.S., the WBC is like the Super Bowl in Japan, although with less entertaining commercials. A 2009 WBC game between Japan and Cuba in California received a 17.9 rating there despite starting at 4:45 on a Monday morning, Tokyo time. A Japan-Korea game drew a 37.8 rating, the highest TV rating for a sports broadcast in Japan since ... well, the 2006 WBC.

That means more Japanese fans watched the WBC than the 2008 Summer Olympics, even though the games sometimes started before dawn in Japan. (You just know some grumpy Japanese columnist wrote about how awful it was that some games didn't end until after noon.)

The tournament is so important to Japan that the stress of winning in 2009 might have been a factor in Ichiro developing a bleeding ulcer that forced him onto the disabled list at the start of the Mariners' season that year. The WBC is so important to Japan that there were nearly as many Japanese media as American media at Team USA's news conference in Arizona this week.

How important is the WBC to Japan? Seattle's Hisashi Iwakuma, who pitched in the 2008 Olympics and the 2009 WBC, says winning the World Baseball Classic is on par with winning the World Series. (Not that Iwakuma has any experience with the latter, given that he plays for the Mariners.)

"The WBC is a great competition," he says through an interpreter. "It's a great challenge for each player to represent his country. It proves who leads the game."

Perhaps that attitude explains why and how Japan has won the first two WBCs.

Iwakuma isn't playing in this year's Classic ("Playing in 2009 was an honor and I think it's time to give an opportunity to the younger players to participate," he says); nor is Ichiro or any other active major leaguer from Japan. But that doesn't mean Japan's WBC players aren't talented, or on their way to the majors. After all, neither Iwakuma nor Yu Darvish had played in the majors before the 2009 tournament. And despite Wednesday morning's 6-3 loss to Cuba in Fukuoka, Japan, to close out first-round play in Pool A, Japan advanced and will meet Taiwan in the second round in Tokyo (5 a.m., ET, on Friday).

"A lot of players want to show what they can do," Iwakuma says. "Because a lot of players want to come to the United States. I think that plays a big role."

It can play a big role for Cuba, too. The WBC provides the only opportunity for Cuban players to compete against major league players and showcase their talent. Just ask Oakland outfielder Yoenis Cespedes.

Cespedes hit .458 with a double, three triples and two home runs for Cuba in the 2009 WBC. He defected two years later and signed a $36 million contract with the Athletics, then hit .292 with 23 home runs as last season's best rookie not named Mike Trout.

Despite losing Cespedes, Cuba swept Pool A earlier this week, outscoring opponents 23-6 and beating Japan for the first time in their four WBC matchups.

"A lot of people follow the Cuban team because it's an amateur team," Cespedes says through an interpreter. "And a lot of the teams that play against them are made up of professionals, with a lot of players from the majors who are some of the best in the world.

"Cuba wants to show how good Cuban baseball is."

Dominican baseball is very good as well. There were more players from the Dominican Republic (95, or 11 percent of the big league total) on major league rosters last year than any country other than the U.S.

"We have something similar to the WBC, which is the Caribbean Series, but it's not as well-known or as big as the Classic," says Texas Rangers third baseman Adrian Beltre, who hopes to join the Dominican team in the second round if it advances and his right calf is fully healed. "We take a lot of pride in trying to be the best we can. We have a lot of players that play in the big leagues, so we have quite a list of players.

"Coming into the Classic the first time, we thought we'd do a better job than we did as a team. [The D.R. lost to Cuba in the semifinals in 2006, and didn't make it out of the first round in 2009.] After that, we didn't meet our expectations, and I think the fans and the players were more into it because they know we can do better."

"Every three or four years, they expect us to do well. They look forward to it."

That includes their president, Danilo Medina. He recently urged the Dominican Republic baseball stars to lift up the nation with their WBC performance. President Obama, meanwhile, has yet to call upon Willie Bloomquist to lift the U.S. economy.

R.A. Dickey has changed teams eight times in his major league career, but this week he pulled on a jersey he hadn't worn in 17 years: a Team USA jersey. He last wore one in the 1996 Olympics, when the U.S. won the bronze medal ... or, as Dickey views it, when America lost the gold medal.

"This is a chance for redemption for me," he says of playing for the U.S. in the WBC, "to come up so short in such a bittersweet experience. You don't often get a chance at redemption. For me, to come along so late in my career, from 1996 to 2013, it's been quite some time, so I feel very thankful. I'm going to come out and play with some real humility because of the opportunity to redeem what I felt like was a frustrating showing in 1996."

One issue with the World Baseball Classic is that it means different things to different countries. For Brazil, Italy and the Netherlands, it is mostly about growing the sport. For others, such as Japan, Cuba and the Dominican Republic, it is about playing for intense national pride.

What does the WBC mean in baseball's birthplace, though? What does it mean in the United States, which went 7-7 over the first two WBCs and didn't reach the final round in 2009? What does it mean to a country where baseball already is considered a national pastime, and where many view the WBC as considerably less important than preparing for the regular season?

Even among the players, it's difficult to find unanimity in the answers. Dickey equates the WBC with the Olympics ("I don't know what kind of trophy we would win; but for me, it would be a gold medal" he says); Mark Teixeira does not.

"The Olympics isn't an exhibition. This is an exhibition," Teixeira said before an arm injury forced him to leave the team earlier this week. "While we want to win, the thing is to put on a great tournament for everyone to enjoy it. For the fans to enjoy it. That doesn't mean we don't want to win it. But the Olympics are a different animal."

So what is it? Something just shy of the Olympics or just north of the Cactus League?

"I think everybody has a unique perspective," Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun says, "especially since the tournament is so new. This is only the third time they've ever done it, so there are guys who have different ideas, different views, different opinions of what the tournament represents. I know for me, personally, it's a tremendous honor. I couldn't imagine ever saying no. I thought in 2009 it was one of the most amazing baseball experiences I've ever had."

The championship game between Japan and Korea in 2009 was an extraordinary game -- Japan won 5-3 in 10 innings -- watched by fans so passionate about the outcome that, for once, no one left Dodger Stadium until the final out. Of course, the WBC's popularity and importance here in the U.S. would be raised considerably if the United States actually plays in the final this time.

"As far as the fan interest, that's something that's just going to have to come," Team USA manager Joe Torre says. "And we can definitely be responsible for getting people in the U.S. engaged based on how far we go."

Wherever you were born, San Remo or San Francisco (where the semifinals and finals will be played in AT&T Park on March 17-19), baseball can take you literally around the world. And the World Baseball Classic shows that almost wherever you go,whether it's along McCovey Cove or the banks of the Danube, you can find the game, growing bigger all the time.

The game of baseball keeps us stitched together.

"It's something that's very important to America because it's America's pastime," Team USA second baseman Brandon Phillips of the Reds says. "Baseball really started here. And it's good for us to represent that and show everybody we can win the WBC. Because all the other countries have really caught onto baseball."