Almost four years ago to the day, Fernando Rodney stood on the mound at AT&T Park and launched one of his famous imaginary arrows into the sky, high above the giant video board beyond the center-field wall.
Rodney had just slammed the door on Puerto Rico, capping the Dominican Republic’s perfect run to the 2013 World Baseball Classic title. As the horns blared in the crowd, a flood of his teammates — some waving miniature blue, white and red flags — spilled out of the dugout as if they’d just won Game 7 of the World Series.
Four day before the Dominicans stormed the field at the San Francisco Giants’ home park, Team USA had wobbled out of the tournament, losing 4-3 to Puerto Rico and 38-year-old starter Nelson Figueroa.
The loss to the eventual runner-up marked the third time in as many WBC appearances that Team USA had dispersed without claiming the title — much less a medal.
If the club is going to break that streak in this month’s iteration of the competition, Team USA will have to do so without a cavalcade of marquee names. The team, which began play on Friday against Columbia, boasts a roster devoid of Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Clayton Kershaw, Chris Sale, Madison Bumgarner and Noah Syndergaard.
In a sport where the preseason runs six weeks, the regular season spans 162 games and the playoffs can last for another month, convincing the game’s preeminent players to add yet another commitment to an already crowded schedule is no easy pitch.
“I’m a [New York] Met,” Syndergaard told reporters at his team’s spring camp when asked why he’d turned down Team USA. “Ain’t nobody made it to the Hall of Fame or the World Series playing in the WBC.”
Like many other prominent big leaguers, the long-haired right-hander cited health concerns when laying out his reasoning for opting against taking part in baseball’s aspiring World Cup. Even for major leaguers who said yes — like Giants’ two-time Gold Glove shortstop Brandon Crawford — it’s impossible to ignore the injury issue.
“The feedback I’ve gotten on Twitter is, ‘Don’t get hurt out there,’” Crawford told ESPN. “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.”
Crawford has been a paragon of durability during his time with the Giants, playing at least 143 games in each of the past five seasons, but the idea of extra work for Buster Posey — Crawford’s teammate in Orange and Black, and in Red, White and Blue — is likely less palatable to fans and the franchise.
Last season, Posey started a career high 122 games behind the plate and a litany of unspecified injuries sapped his power during the second half, when he produced three home runs and a .383 slugging percentage.
Before departing Scottsdale, Posey missed a pair of Cactus League games with a stiff neck. One positive for the Giants and their $162-million backstop is that the catcher could work with new closer Mark Melancon, who is slated to join the national team for potential second-round play.
Jeff Samardzija is also an option for the semifinals, while Johnny Cueto, who missed nearly the first three weeks of the spring as he tended to his ill father, could potentially make a cameo for the reigning-champ Dominican squad.
The Oakland Athletics were originally scheduled to have five members of the major league roster competing in the WBC before the entire quintet bowed out. The most-notable dropout was erstwhile ace Sonny Gray.
The diminutive right-hander won’t be pitching in the WBC because the company that insures the tournament deemed Gray, who pitched just twice during the final two months of 2016, too much of an injury risk. Promptly after getting bounced from the tournament, Gray suffered a lat sprain which is expected to keep him off the mound until late April.
Gray’s latest setback provides yet another rude reminder for MLB players that it’s easy enough to get hurt — even without the added stresses of a WBC-induced accelerated spring.
For fans searching for reasons to follow along with a tournament in which Team USA is most conspicuous for the stars who aren’t there — both from the Bay Area and beyond — it’s worth remembering that the WBC serves as the ideal stage for game’s unknown talents to announce their arrival.
This spring, there’s one such player one will look familiar to followers of the A’s — Yoenis Cespedes, the 19-year-old half brother of Yoenis Cespedes, the ex-Oakland slugger.
“He reminds me an awful lot of a young Sammy Sosa,” longtime MLB broadcaster Buck Martinez told the New York Times. “He has the same attributes. Good speed, strong arm, quick twitch muscles, looks like he has a good feel for the game. And certainly, he has the bloodlines, no question about that.”MLB