Mark DeRosa was sitting in his apartment one day last summer, preparing for his day job as an analyst at MLB Network, when he got a call from Tony Reagins.
Reagins, the general manager for the U.S. World Baseball Classic team, wanted DeRosa to manage the team. For DeRosa, it was a no-brainer. “It was a perfect opportunity,” DeRosa said. He had never managed before, but the WBC offered a confluence of national pride, playoff crowds and an ability to work with some of the best players in the sport.
Turns out, that mix is why his players — and those from other countries — are here, too.
“When you wear it across your chest, it hits it differently than the major-league uniform,” U.S. third baseman Nolan Arenado said. “It’s an incredible honor to play in the major leagues, but to it’s an incredible honor to represent USA and be on a team with the best players in our league. And it’s a privilege that people want you on this team. It was such an easy yes.”
That allure has produced a star-studded U.S. lineup, featuring not just Arenado but also players like Mike Trout, Paul Goldschmidt and Pete Alonso.
“My first playoff experience was this past season,” Alonso, the Mets first baseman, said. “It was only three games and it was a short-lived playoff experience. And after we were done, the feeling I came back with was, man, I want more of this. Because that playoff baseball feeling, it’s addictive. … And I want to be able to put myself into that and experience that. It’s addicting for sure. To be able to feel that right off the rip and during a normal spring training time, it’s a rare opportunity, especially with this team. It’s an extremely rare opportunity.”
On the pitching side, the top American stars opted out, choosing to preserve their health and follow a more typical preseason routine. That opened the door for two veterans who have long wanted a shot at the WBC — Adam Wainwright and Lance Lynn.
Back in his minor league days, Wainwright was left off the U.S. Olympic team in 2004. Lynn played with a collegiate national team back in 2007, but hasn’t been able to partake in previous iterations of the WBC because of issues with his previous teams.
“When you represent your country at 20, it’s a little different than when you’re 35,” Lynn said. “You get a little different understanding of what you’re here to do and what you’re trying to accomplish.”
Playing with Wainwright is an added bonus. The two pitched together with the Cardinals for six seasons, forging a close relationship before Lynn left for Minnesota in free agency.
“He was like a big brother to me in St. Louis,” Lynn said. “And he was one of the many guys that I have to thank for the things that I’ve accomplished in my career.”
In the four days since games began at Chase Field, players and managers alike have spoken of the personal interactions they’ve enjoyed. On the surface, players from opposing MLB teams may be rivals. But baseball is a tight-knit community, with even rival players developing friendships in the off-season, at All-Star Games and in other shared pursuits, like fantasy football leagues.
Take Patrick Sandoval, for example. With the Mexican team, he’s reunited with Gerardo Reyes (an Angels teammate), José Urquidy (a former teammate in the Astros farm system) and Austin Barnes (who he’s worked out with back home in California). There’s also been the opportunity for Sandoval to meet Mexico teammates who he didn’t previously know, like Taijuan Walker and Julio Urías.
For DeRosa, who spent 16 years in the majors, the impact of reuniting with old friends is particularly pronounced. The first day he arrived in Phoenix, he got dinner with Brian McCann, Freddie Freeman and Jason Heyward, all of whom he got to know from two decades living in Atlanta, where they played for the Braves.
Other players, meanwhile, have enjoyed the opportunity to get closer with their roots. That’s especially true in Pool C, which is the group that’s playing in Phoenix. Every team except the U.S. has players born outside of the country they represent.
Freddie Freeman, for example, grew up in Southern California, going to Blue Jays and Maple Leafs games with his Canadian parents when those teams played in Anaheim. Sandoval and Walker were also raised in California, both by Mexican parents.
“My grandma, my family, they’re from Chihuahua,” Walker said. “I don’t know a lot. My grandma passed away when I was a lot younger, so I didn’t get a chance to really learn about that side of my family. I thought it would be special for my mom and that side of my family for me to represent Mexico.”
Perhaps the most unique case is Mexico’s Randy Arozarena, who grew up in Cuba before defecting to Mexico in 2016.
“To me, Mexico is special,” Arozarena said. “As I’ve said it a lot since when I left Cuba, Mexico is a country that received me with arms open. I have a Mexican girl. And I have it in my heart since I arrived in Mexico. I expressed I wanted to represent in the World Baseball Classic, and I have the chance now.”