PHOENIX -- All the talking is over, and the third running of the World Baseball Classic is little more than a week away. And in the last few months, Team USA manager Joe Torre has painstakingly put together a club he believes has a chance to win the whole thing.
This year's tournament begins in Asia on March 2 and resumes in Arizona and Puerto Rico only five days later.
Team USA opens its bracket at Chase Field in Phoenix on March 8 with a 7 p.m. MT game against Mexico. The Americans play Italy and Canada the following two days, with the goal of winning the round-robin section of the tournament and heading on to Miami against a pair of Latin teams beginning on March 12. The semifinals and final are slated for San Francisco from March 17-19.
The U.S. hasn't made it beyond the semifinals in either of the first two Classics, both won by Japan. Coming out of retirement to manage the team, Torre's first task is to put the players into the right mindset.
"Right now, we can't look at the finish line," Torre said during a media conference staged earlier this week at Chase Field. "In any tournament or playoff, if you get all pumped up about the final result, it's going to keep you from paying attention to what you need to pay attention to. It sounds trite, but we have to just go out there and play one game at a time, with the need to win every single game, every single day."
Torre, Major League Baseball's executive vice president of baseball operations and a winner of four World Series titles as manager of the Yankees, spent about 35 minutes answering questions about his own team and the tournament.
Question: Why do you think the U.S. had problems winning the first two Classics?
Torre: I think the time of year has something to do with it. Spring Training is a time when you get into shape, physically. The mental part you slowly work your way up to it. Witnessing it from the outside, that's the one area that things obviously have to be a little different. Preparation has to be beyond physical. It has to be about making those games in March count, which is something we're not used to doing.
Question: There has been some talk about playing it at some other time of the season.
Torre: There's no other time of the year we can do this. Hockey stops the season to go play in the Olympics and comes back and continues the season. We can't do that in our sport. The only other time would be the fall. But that's really a tough time to hold a Classic like this after guys have played in 160-200 games. This is just the time to do it. In a short series, we really have talented countries out there. Japan has been the boss here the first two times. I'm fortunate to have had experience in the postseason from the good and bad ends, and in a short series, anything can happen. But I think it's just the mental preparation for the postseason-type atmosphere.
Question: Is there anything that can be done about that?
Torre: I've talked to every player. I just felt that there were some players who could not commit. Justin Verlander, for instance, wasn't sure that he was going to be ready because he was in the World Series [in 2012]. I appreciated it when he gave me a call and we talked about it. I talked to every player, because I wanted to gauge, not only the interest, but the excitement about playing with USA across your chest. That's what every single one of them spoke about: the excitement of being a part of this. So I feel pretty comfortable with the team we've put together, based on their ability, for one, and the fact that they will be ready to do this when we need to.
Question: You only will have one day of workouts as a team before playing exhibition games in the Phoenix area on March 5-6. In contrast, Japan, China, Korea and the Netherlands have all been training for weeks. Do you think that's a little unfair?
Torre: You mean for them to have the advantage because of that? Well, they're going to have to give us two runs a game. It is what it is. It doesn't mean you're going to win. As I've said, this is the only time of year it makes sense to do this. The difference this year is that we started Spring Training a little earlier and we're going to play some games beforehand. Each of our starting pitchers will have pitched twice already in Spring Training for their teams. We've done some things a little bit different in allowing the players -- pitchers especially -- to get ready. Pitchers are creatures of habit, and we have to make sure they get their work on the days they're supposed to get their work. I know [USA co-pitching coach] Greg Maddux has talked to every pitching coach and asked where [guys are] slotted to start the season. We're trying to match up what the team's needs are with what we can do with them.
Question: Can you talk a little about the composition of your team?
Torre: I was asked the other day in Los Angeles why more "superstars" aren't playing. And I said, "You just can't play them all." It would be great if we could use free substitution in our sport, change the rules to the point of doing that. But in Spring Training, if you're two-deep at every position, guys are not going to play enough. So the way I put the team together was just try to take one guy at each position. And I thought the utility men were important. The two I have -- Willie Bloomquist and Ben Zobrist -- both play the infield and outfield and play them very well. I just feel that if you're going to put a team together, and it's really a postseason atmosphere, you have these guys out there and hopefully you play them nine innings. There are a lot of variables in the schedule, but there aren't enough games to get enough playing time in if you had too many starting players at each position.
Question: How do you anticipate lining up the pitching, considering pitch-count limits and mandatory off-days after appearances for starters and relievers?
Torre: That's a real good question. The most important thing is that these guys get the work that they're supposed to get. I had talked to Greg and [USA co-pitching coach] Marcel Lachemann about the number of starters that we'd need. They talked about four or five or six, because they could make things work. There are certain areas where you might piggyback starters a little bit. So I will get on paper what their thought process is, but everybody will throw on the days they're supposed to throw. Plus, we have those two exhibition games, too, to give the pitchers who might not be pitching until Games 4 or 5 a taste. And there's a chance, and I think it's legal, for those guys not pitching in Phoenix to stay with their clubs to pitch and then join us later.
Question: You've mentioned Maddux a couple of times. What does it mean to have a guy like that on your coaching staff?
Torre: When I called Greg, at first he thought I had called the wrong Maddux to be my pitching coach. I had him in Los Angeles in 2008 when we got him for that last month of the season. I always admired what he did. He used to frustrate me watching it because it was against my teams, but I always just admired how business-like he was and grounded he was. When I got him over with the Dodgers, he was every bit of what you hoped he would be. It's going to be a benefit to these pitchers to be exposed to this guy for a few weeks. They certainly know who he is and what he's been about. And he's so dedicated, because he finds a way to win.
Question: How does it feel to be managing a team representing the U.S.?
Torre: I know it's not going to hit me until I put on the uniform. I remember when I was picked in [November 1995] to manage the Yankees and said, "Wow, this is a great thrill to put on a Yankees uniform." And now you put on that USA across your chest? In my mind, this is sort of reminiscent of a sad time, in 2001 when 9/11 happened. We were in New York at the time and visited families of people who had lost their lives. It was at that time when I realized that baseball was more than entertainment on the field. That we meant a lot to a lot of people. And our responsibility was far beyond just playing the game. I told the players this in our first meeting back: "This NY on our cap means more than just the Yankees. It's the game, and people need this game to hide out from their problems."
Question: So you feel the same way about this tournament?
Torre: For me, this is going to be a similar emotion, certainly without the sadness that was part of all that. Emotionally, once you put that uniform on, it's a responsibility. And it's not necessarily the winning part of it, but the way you carry yourself and go about it. You represent yourself, and in this case, you represent your country.
Barry M. Bloom is a 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.Less