Drive to win links Classic skippers

Drive to win links Classic skippers

PANAMA CITY, Panama -- Throughout their respective Major League careers, slugger Carlos Lee and closer Eric Gagne faced each other four times. The scorecard? Lee went 1-for-4 with a double, and Gagne recorded a strikeout.

But on Thursday night at Rod Carew Stadium, the two former foes on the field were sitting in opposite dugouts, Lee managing Panama and Gagne leading France during a World Baseball Classic qualifier, with Lee's squad earning a 9-2 victory. The ex-big leaguers have enjoyed the transition from the field to the bench.

Gagne on loss to Panama

"He was really scary," Gagne said with a laugh while describing his former encounters with Lee on the mound. "I actually played with [Panama bench coach] Olmedo Saenz, too. It's fun to play against these guys and that we're all involved in this. We're growing the game worldwide, and that's basically why we're here -- just to build the game. It's fun to play against these guys. We gave each other a hug before the game [on Thursday], so it's cool."

Panama's win on Thursday night set it up for a big contest against Colombia on Friday at 9 p.m. ET, when one team will advance to its pool's final with a victory. All World Baseball Classic qualifier games are streaming on MLB.com and worldbaseballclassic.com.

The tournament at Rod Carew Stadium has been a special experience for Lee in front of his home fans, who showered the former Major Leaguer with a big round of cheers during his introduction on Thursday night. Lee represented his country in the previous three World Baseball Classic tournaments as a player, but he acknowledged the different feelings that come with being a skipper.

"I'm the kind of person that takes a lot of pride in everything I do," Lee said. "Going out as a manager, my first experience -- I tell everybody that I can only do so much. It's like raising a kid, you know? You can prepare your kid for that moment, but when they're out there, they've got the message."

If there's one manager in Panama who ties it all together, it's Spain's Manny Crespo. Back in 2001, on this very field, Crespo was managing a team that featured young catcher Carlos Ruiz, who hit two homers for Panama on Thursday night. As a matter of fact, Crespo said Lee was also playing in the Panamanian Winter League that year.

Crespo on Spain's loss

Go back even further -- four more decades -- and Crespo himself was playing winter ball in Panama City during the 1970-71 season.

"I've been around baseball for a long time," Crespo said. "It always goes around and around, and I always end up in Panama, which is great, because I love this country and the people are really nice."

Not to mention that Crespo also has some history with Gagne, as the two coached against one another in Europe in recent years.

Rounding out the managers in Panama for the qualifier is Colombia's Luis Urueta, who is the young gun of the group. Though he's entering his 10th season as a coach in the Arizona Diamondbacks organization, Urueta is only 35 years old. After serving as a coach for the Triple-A Reno Aces last year, Urueta is set to serve as a Class A Short-Season fielding coordinator in 2016. Urueta is also a veteran on the Colombian circuit, having managed there during the past five winters and guided his teams to back-to-back league championships.

Urueta on Colombia's win

During his career as a Minor Leaguer from 2000-03, Urueta also befriended Edgar Renteria, the icon of Colombian baseball who is largely responsible for the game's growth in the past 20 years. Once Renteria became the general manager of the national team, he naturally called Urueta to guide the squad for this tournament, given his experience as the first-base coach for Colombia during the 2012 qualifier in Panama.

"He called me and told me he wanted me to be the manager, which was pretty cool," Urueta said. "We were friends, and now he's giving me another opportunity, another shot just to do what I'm doing for a living, which is coaching and managing."

Colombia has yet to play in a WBC final, but with 16 affiliated players on his 28-man roster, Urueta is confident that this is the year the squad will finally break through to the worldwide stage.

"I think the level of players right now for Colombia is pretty good," Urueta said. "A bunch of guys are playing in the big leagues, big league camps and high level of the Minor Leagues. It's good for the country. This is a big opportunity for us to succeed, and to have the chance to make it to the WBC would be huge for the country and for Colombian baseball."

Alex Espinoza is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.