Classic a huge step forward for baseball

Classic huge step forward for game

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Jimmy Rollins arrived at the Phillies' clubhouse on Monday morning at the normal time, walked to his locker and felt as though he didn't belong.

"Nobody said 'hello' or anything," said Rollins. "[Manager Charlie Manuel] was sitting over there, and it was like I wasn't even a part of the team."

Rollins gathered up some gear and made a hasty exit -- to the visiting clubhouse at Bright House Field.

Rollins and scores of other Major Leaguers swapped their familiar uniforms for the colors of the nations for which they'll play this month.

For Rollins it's the striking white armor of Team USA, which held its first workout on Monday at the Phillies' Spring Training park.

It's the second World Baseball Classic and, yes, the international tournament does create strange bedfellows. Instead of trying to beat the dickens out of opponents, players now find themselves rooting for and playing next to longtime enemies.

When lockers were assigned, Derek Jeter, Team USA captain, wisely put himself between Rollins and Mets third baseman David Wright. Rollins and Wright, the Phillies and Mets, will never take part in a lovefest.

"That broke the ice right there," said Rollins, laughing. "That's why he's our captain."

Rollins has a reputation for being a chatterbox. Jeter, making light of J-Roll, said, "Jimmy hasn't shut up since we got in the clubhouse. I've gotten to know Jimmy through the years, so I'm looking forward to playing with him this time."

The U.S. lost to Mexico in the second round of the inaugural Classic in 2006, which was won by Japan.

Former Major League manager Davey Johnson, who has vast international baseball experience, is a superb choice to skipper this U.S. team.

Johnson believes that "a lot of guys weren't ready to play" in 2006, thus the disappointing showing.

I mentioned Johnson's remarks to Jeter, the Yankees' captain and shortstop, before Monday's workout. He disagreed.

2009 Rosters

"The first time around, I think no one really knew what to expect -- players, coaches, everyone," Jeter said. "We just didn't play well. Any time you're talking about a tournament that's three weeks, you're talking about a short series in each round. There's no room for error.

"I wouldn't necessarily say we weren't ready to play. As a whole, we just didn't play well enough. This time of the year, it's early in our season, but it's like that for every team."

Team USA plays three exhibition games, beginning on Tuesday against the Yankees in Tampa. On Wednesday the Blue Jays are the opponent, and on Thursday it's the Phillies.

The U.S. plays Canada in its first game, on Saturday in Toronto at Rogers Centre. In addition to Canada, the U.S. is grouped with Italy and Venezuela in a first-round group.

I faced the first Classic with mixed emotions. It interrupted the routine of Spring Training and left some of baseball's best players vulnerable for costly injuries. I wasn't convinced it was a valuable addition to baseball.

But after talking to many of the players who participated in 2006, I'm convinced now that the Classic is a good idea, and it's certainly a huge step forward as baseball becomes more globalized.

"I tell everyone to have fun and enjoy the experience," said Jeter. "Except for the result, I had a great time. And I had never played for any team representing my country. There was a great sense of pride.

"I'll tell you, when you're wearing this uniform and they play the national anthem, you listen to it and pay attention to a little bit more."

Rollins said that it's important to him "because you get to represent the U.S. I have been a big fan of the Olympics since I was a little boy, especially on the track and field side, because my father was into it. Growing up, I said I'd love to be in the Olympics. I had a chance in 2000 but didn't make the team, had a chance in 2006 [for the Classic] and didn't make it. This time I wasn't going to let it pass me by."

Said Johnson: "This is all about winning a few ballgames and getting to the finals. I think they're excited and more prepared than they were three years ago."

How do you prepare a team for such a tournament as this with so little time?

"The biggest thing is, these guys have had 10 to 12 at-bats in Spring Training. Most of the pitchers have had one or two outings, and that's huge," said Johnson. "Just knowing the competition is going to be tough, and taking it seriously is important. So I think mentally and physically, this group is much more prepared than three years ago."

Johnson believes that the toughest part of his job is writing the lineup, because there are so many premier players on the roster.

"Take Jeter and Rollins -- two great shortstops," he said. "Thirty or 28 managers would kill to have just one of them playing for them. I'm not going to use them like in an All-Star Game, where a guy gets two at-bats and is replaced. A lot of guys feel that third or fourth at-bat is critical to get good timing.

"They're both basically Hall of Fame guys. I'll probably play one nine innings and then the other guy nine innings the next day."

In the end, Johnson plays down his role as manager.

"I'm going to let them express their talent," he said. "That's what they're here for. I've never been one to overmanage. I just kind of let 'em do what they want to do."

But don't think for a minute that Johnson won't have total control. He's mellowed since he guided the Mets to a World Series championship in 1986, followed by stops in Baltimore, Cincinnati and Los Angeles.

On Monday he made one thing clear. He's in this position to bring home a championship.

To him, anything less is a failure.

Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.