Panama hopes veteran presence propels team

Panama hopes veteran presence propels team

A Panamanian team with a wealth of World Series experience is hoping players like All-Star Carlos Ruiz and shortstop Ruben Tejada can lead it past the upcoming qualifying round in the group's third World Baseball Classic.

Ranked by the International Baseball Federation as the world's No. 15 team, Panama starts its trek in the World Baseball Classic at a familiar locale -- Rod Carew Stadium in Panama City -- when it opens against Brazil on Thursday.

Panama City native Roberto Kelly, fresh off his second career World Series title with San Francisco, will manage Panama after serving as the Giants' first-base coach the last five seasons.

Perhaps Panama's most well-known current ballplayer, Yankees closer Mariano Rivera, will likely miss the games after he sat out most of the 2012 season with a season-ending knee injury. Rivera, a native of Panama City, did not participate in the 2006 or 2009 games.

Instead, pitchers like brothers Manny and Alberto Acosta will be tasked with leading this team from the hill, with Ruiz behind the plate. Ruiz, who was signed by the Phillies in 1998, reached the Majors in 2006 and helped lead the Phillies to the title in 2008. He made his first All-Star appearance this season and was named the winner of the Mike Schmidt Most Valuable Player Award this season by the Philadelphia chapter of the Baseball Writers' Association of America.

Former big leaguer Ramiro Mendoza, who spent 10 seasons in the Majors with the Yankees and Red Sox from 1996-2005, also hopes to suit up for the team at age 40.

"It's a source of pride for me," Mendoza told MLB.com. "It's a great honor to wear Panama's uniform. I want to do it here, in front of my fans and I hope it's not the last time."

Four national teams -- Colombia, Brazil, Nicaragua and Panama -- will converge on Rod Carew Stadium for the Nov. five-day qualifier and the right to play in the main tournament in March. Panama did not win a game in either the 2006 or 2009 Classic.

The field was resodded over four days in late October, and renovations were performed on the drainage, sprinkler system and clubhouses. The ballpark opened in October 1999 and holds 27,000.

"It is a wonderful experience," Mendoza said. "I [am coming] to do my part to help the boys, but I know they have a lot to offer for Panama."

The club also hopes to receive a spark from players like Tejada -- who has three Major League seasons with the Mets under his belt and is ready to shake his nickname of "The Rookie" given to him as a child because he was often the smallest player on the team -- and Luis Durango, who was named by Baseball America as the fastest player in the Padres organization in 2007.

Durango, who last appeared in the big leagues with Houston in 2011, went 3-for-5 with two walks and a steal in the 2009 tournament out of the leadoff spot, and was called up to the Majors that season.

As for Tejada, he's looking to build off his 2009 tournament debut after also playing in 114 games for New York this season.

"The only reason we are here is to win and clinch a spot on the Classic," Tejada told MLB.com. "The main thing is to move on to the Classic, and God willing, everything will go our way. I come with more experience, so hopefully everything will come out as planned."

Joey Nowak is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @joeynowak.‬ This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.