CHICAGO -- The final qualifying rounds for the 2013 World Baseball Classic will be staged this week in Panama and Taiwan, and the 16-team tournament is set to be played for the third time in March. Japan prevailed in 2006 and 2009. Team USA didn't make it out of the second round in '06 and lost in the semifinals to Japan at Dodger Stadium in '09. That may all change this coming spring, when Joe Torre takes charge of the U.S. squad. The man who is now Major League Baseball's executive vice president of baseball operations is approaching this tournament with a dual mindset.
"We're going to take good care of the players and if all the plans go right we'll send them back in good shape and ready to start the season," Torre told MLB.com in an exclusive interview on Wednesday during the first day of the quarterly Owners Meetings. "That's the biggest concern to me, is taking care of players. You want to win, but it's so important to each of the teams that when you take their players you make sure you pay attention to them." The first two U.S. teams were managed by Buck Martinez and Davey Johnson. Torre is an almost certain Hall of Famer, and as manager of the Yankees from 1996-2007, his clubs won the World Series four times, the American League pennant six times and went to the playoffs every year. After two more years of taking the Dodgers as far the National League Championship Series in 2008-09, that run ended in 2010 when the Dodgers missed the playoffs and he retired. More than two seasons away from managing his last game, Torre said it's not a task you so easily forget. "Once you get into the environment it all comes back to you," he said. "It really does. When you start thinking of team the blood starts flowing a little bit." Torre is putting together next year's edition of Team USA with Joe Garagiola Jr., MLB's senior vice president of baseball operations and the club's general manager. The pair has already been scouring lists and rosters for the right mix. "He's probably more efficient at doing it because he crosses all the T's and dots the I's with names and lists and options," Torre said about the veteran former GM, whose 2001 D-backs defeated Torre's Yankees in a memorable seven-game World Series. "He's a great asset for us." MLB.com: How do you view your part in all this? Torre: Anytime you put a uniform on you want to win. But this is a little bit different. I know my perception of the WBC that first year was that it was a helpless feeling for managers because they take your players away from you. I'm certainly sensitive to that and my responsibility. I happened to mention it to the general managers during the meetings last week: obviously you can't guarantee that nothing is going to go wrong, but we're going to take good care of their players. That's the biggest concern to me, is taking care of players. MLB.com: Aren't the rosters for all the teams already being formulated because they're going to be announced at the Winter Meetings in Nashville, Tenn., early next month? Torre: Yeah, but there are always changes. There's always stuff. Right now I'm talking with Tony Clark from the Players Association because you have to make sure everybody is always involved in this. They already have a list of players deeper than the 28-man roster. We want to make sure that in putting a team together that it doesn't necessarily have to be full of superstars. It has to be a team that's going to be able to function. It's nice to get all the big name guys, but they can't all play. That's probably the most sensitive area about putting this team together. MLB.com: Do you want to get these guys together as a unit a little earlier than you have in the past? Torre: You really can't. I'll go through the Players Association on this, but hopefully there's a time when I can talk to the players and just sort of get a feel for what we have. I know where we want to go. I want to make sure that we're ready. USA Baseball is a little bit different than other countries. That's just the start of our getting in shape. Players for the most part never really fall out of shape. Naturally, we need to be in game-playing shape when the time comes, which is early March. MLB.com: Based on the experience of the first two tournaments, when you have the Koreans and the Japanese together and getting in shape in January, how does the U.S. compete with all that? Torre: And you have all your Latin players competing in those wintertime tournaments, too. I think that's been the biggest issue with the U.S. team. Your body is conditioned to do certain things. You're sort of surprised at that time of the year when you tell it, "Hey, let's win! Let's play!" I don't think it's that easy to get to the top of your games. Obviously, everybody involved has to understand where we need to be by early March. We get them, I think, it's March 2. MLB.com: How many workouts do you get before you open the tournament? Torre: I think we'll play three exhibition games in Arizona against Major League teams or countries training for the tournament. What's ever been done in the past is probably what we'll do again this time. MLB.com: So what's really your mindset, getting these guys back healthy and ready for the season or winning the tournament? Torre: Winning is very important, but again, first things first. It's like starting at the beginning of the season and saying I want to win the pennant. In order to get there you have to do all of these little things right and you have to function on a regular basis. That's what I'm looking at now. Winning is a byproduct of getting everything together emotionally and physically. MLB.com: How do you feel about coming back to manage? Torre: I feel great. I've been asked if I miss managing. No, but I'm looking forward to this because it's a three-week period. The way I liken it is to having your grandchildren. You get to play with them for a few weeks and then you send them back to their parents. My goal is to send them back to their parents with winning smiles on their faces and ready to start the 2013 season. MLB.com: Tony La Russa had the experience this year of coming back to manage in the All-Star Game. But he had retired from the Cardinals after winning the World Series at the end of the 2011 season. It's been a much longer period for you. Torre: Yeah, but once I get my staff together -- and somewhere in the near future here we're going to have a meeting with the coaching staff I've put together -- once you get into the environment it all comes back to you. It really does. When you start thinking of team the blood starts flowing a little bit. MLB.com: Who's on your staff? Mel Stottlemyre? Don Zimmer? I can see the old gang getting back together. Torre: There will be some familiar faces, but I haven't disclosed who my staff is going to be. I think Major League Baseball wants to make that announcement. I've talked to Mel and my guess is that he'll be more of a consultant than work during the spring. Zim [and] I talk regularly and he's not doing a lot of traveling nowadays. MLB.com: Anything to be learned from what happened during the first two tournaments? Torre: I didn't pay much attention to it because I was working. But you certainly heard a lot of horror stories about a pitcher having thrown too much and coming up with an injury. I'm not talking about solely the U.S., either. That's the kind of thing you want to avoid. That's the one thing I told general managers, I said, "You know, you can trust that as far as the conditioning part, we're committed to making sure the players don't miss anything." Again, there are no guarantees. Anything can happen. You can trip when you step off a curb. But we're going to do our best to avoid any catastrophes. That's more important than anything else. If they're in a good place emotionally than I expect good things to happen.
Barry M. Bloom is national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow@boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.