HOFers have long history with World Baseball Classic

Written by: Bill Francis

The World Baseball Classic has been a showcase for the game’s stars from around the globe. Included among the many are a few who've been honored with a bronze plaque in Cooperstown.

Now in its fourth iteration, the 2017 WBC features players competing for their homeland in a 16-team tournament consisting of four pools of four teams each. When the WBC was first introduced in 2006, then-commissioner Bud Selig, an early supporter of the event and a member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame Class of 2017, said, “This is going to be the most important international baseball event ever staged.

"One of my priorities – one of the game's priorities – is the internationalization of baseball. We're doing everything we can to move the sport in an international direction. I think it's going to be absolutely spectacular."

A trio of future members of the Hall of Fame – Ken Griffey Jr., Mike Piazza and Ivan Rodriguez - participated in the inaugural 2006 WBC.

Playing as an outfielder for Team USA in 2006, the 36-year-old Griffey, elected to the Hall of Fame in 2016, batted .524 (11-for-21) with two doubles, three home runs and 10 RBI in six games.

"For two weeks, I really enjoyed being a part of it," said Griffey, although Team USA went 1-2 in pool play. "Anything can happen on any given day. If you're consistent and make the plays, you can beat anybody."
Piazza, Griffey’s fellow 2016 Hall of Fame inductee, played for Team Italy in the 2006 WBC. The 37-year-old catcher batted .091 (1-for-11) with a double in three games.

“Matty (Italy manager Matt Galante in 2006) and I have been talking about how wonderful it is to kind of reconnect with our ancestry, with our roots over there,” said Piazza, whose grandparents were Italian. “The Italian players and staff have been so gracious to us and have welcomed us and made us feel comfortable. We wanted this to be an important event for us, and we think we are building a bridge here for the future.”

Piazza would later serve as a batting coach for Team Italy in the WBC in 2009 and 2013.

"I've always been a huge fan of the tournament. I've always believed in the tournament, I think it’s great," said Piazza in 2016. "Baseball doesn't have a bona fide World Cup… We may never get to that level, but we want to encourage people that the World Baseball Classic is something that is a lot of fun.

"The guys who come out to play, some of them have done very well, some of them have been noticed by other teams. It's a great opportunity, especially for the young guys to come out and showcase their talent. Who knows? If you have an opportunity to advance your career, so much the better."

Rodriguez, the longtime catcher set to be inducted into the Hall of Fame on July 30, played for Team Puerto Rico twice, hitting .238 (5-for-21) with a double and homer in six games in 2006, then batting .500 (10-for-20) with three doubles and two homers in 2009.

“It feels very good,” said Rodriguez after leading Team Puerto Rico to a victory in the 2006 WBC. “I mean, when you're playing in front of your home town, Puerto Rico, and wearing the Puerto Rican uniform and perform in a winning way the way we did today, having two hits with a home run and an RBI is a very nice feeling.

“The message that I sent to my teammates was keep them very positive, just play the game hard, reminding them that we play for our country and we wear the Puerto Rican uniform, and that's something very special for myself and I think for my teammates.”

Off the field, three other members of the Hall of Fame – Barry Larkin, Joe Torre and Bert Blyleven – have been involved in the WBC.

Larkin, the longtime Reds shortstop enshrined in Cooperstown in 2012, served as a coach for Team USA in 2009 and managed Team Brazil in 2013. Larkin also skippered Team Brazil in preparing for the 2017 WBC, but his squad was eliminated from participating after falling in a qualifying round.
"The idea of this tournament is to globalize the sport of baseball," said Larkin in a 2017 interview. "It's definitely evident that good ball is played all around the world. I was impressed overall. You can see that the game is developing in their countries.”

"Being on the other side internationally, the tournament is humongous. There is a tremendous amount of interest and excitement. I think it's more exciting because of the opportunity it gives the players who are not in the States."

Torre, the former big league star player who would later manage the Yankees to four World Series titles in five years and earn a bronze Hall of Fame plaque in 2014, served as Team USA’s skipper in 2013, the team losing in the second round, then was named the squad’s general manager for 2017.

Mike Piazza donned this hat for Team Italy when he served as their batting coach in the 2013 World Baseball Classic. (Milo Stewart Jr. / National Baseball Hall of Fame)

"I am honored to be selected to lead Team USA in the 2013 World Baseball Classic,” said Torre back in 2012. “I have been fortunate to have many different experiences throughout my career, but being a part of Team USA will be a first, and I am very excited about it."

When it was announced in June 2016 that Torre would be serving as Team USA’s GM, he said, “I'm excited to be involved again. I had a taste of international play in 2013 and was disappointed that we didn't advance further."

Blyleven was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2011 after a 22-year major league career in which the right-hander with the famed curveball won 287 games while striking out 3,701 batters. The native of Zeist, Netherlands, has served as a pitching coach on the Dutch team’s WBC entrant in 2009, 2013 and 2017.

“This isn’t really a job – it’s something I want to give back to where I was born,” said Blyleven in 2013. “I’m not doing it for the financial part whatsoever. To me, it’s an honor to represent the country that I was born in. I enjoy the heck out of it. It’s fun.”

Among the more than 40,000 three-dimensional artifacts in the Hall of Fame’s permanent collection are baseball caps worn by Piazza for Team Italy during the 2013 WBC, by Torre for Team USA during the 2013 WBC and by Blyleven for Team Netherlands during the 2009 WBC.

The Championship Round for the 2017 WBC will take place at Dodger Stadium on March 20-22. The Championship Round consists of two semifinal games and the winner-takes-all championship game.

Bill Francis is a Library Associate at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

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