The Team Italy-Athletics game just ended. The A’s won 4-3, with the final out coming when an Italian player was gunned down at the plate. Not too bad for a split squad major league team playing a WBC underdog.
I spoke with Anthony Rizzo on the field after the game. Rizzo hit a long homer off the scoreboard in right-center, which looked like it could have gone 50 more feet if it needed to. While Rizzo will likely be back with the Cubs next week or so, he’s relishing his time with Team Italy.
“Our goal is San Francisco,” Rizzo said when asked what he hopes to get out of the WBC. Referring, of course, to the WBC final. When asked if that was realistic he said “Absolutely. Anything is possible.” I wonder if he’d say that in a candid environment, but he seemed sincere in the moment. No, Team Italy is not expected to do much here, but Rizzo is certainly in the head space of a player who is playing meaningful games right now.
He said as much, noting that it’s nice to play games that matter. Which, having talked to a lot of players this past week, I think is something most of them crave. Spring Training is a time of renewal and all of that, but after a week or so, it also becomes a bit of a slog for some of these guys. Rizzo may not have as strong a connection to Team Italy as he does the Chicago Cubs, but the few WBC games he plays will have a greater sense of urgency and purpose to them than Cubs exhibitions, and I can imagine how appealing that is to these guys right now.
Oh, final note: I asked Rizzo how he liked being called “Anthony RIT-tso” by the P.A. announcer (and his name is phonetically-spelled that way in the press materials). He rather digs it. He said it a couple of times, rolling it off his tongue.
“I think I’ll enjoy that this week,” he said.
Infielder Javier Baez is back in camp with the Cubs after helping Puerto Rico to a second-place finish in the 2017 World Baseball Classic. He was the focal point of what was, to many, the most memorable play of the entire tournament: Baez pointed at catcher Yadier Molina, who was attempting to throw out a would-be base-stealer, before applying the tag for the final out of the eighth inning.
While Baez didn’t receive much criticism for his theatrics, aside from an insignificant handful of spoilsports, he is one of the players who most exemplifies the emotional, celebratory culture that foreign players bring to Major League Baseball. U.S. (and Tigers) second baseman Ian Kinsler is on the other side of that spectrum, as he said prior to the WBC final that he hopes kids mimic the solemn way U.S. players play the game rather than the emotional, passionate way players from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic play the game.
Baez isn’t about to apologize for the way he and his teammates play the game. Via CSN Chicago’s Patrick Mooney, Baez said, “We do a great job playing and having fun out there. That’s what it’s all about. This is a game. It’s not as serious as a lot of people take it. but, you know, everybody’s got their style and their talent. I have a lot of fun.”
He continued, “It’s their choice to look at how we play, how excited we get. To us, it’s really huge what we did, even though we didn’t win. All of Puerto Rico got really together. We were going through a hard time over there and everything got fixed up for at least three weeks. Hopefully, they keep it like that.”
Angels outfielder Mike Trout came up with an idea that would allow less experienced umpires an opportunity to call some major league spring training action. As ESPN’s Buster Olney reports, Trout thinks the veteran umpires should only call five or six innings as they get back into regular season shape. The rest of the innings could be called by minor league umpires.
According to Olney, baseball officials loved Trout’s idea when they heard about it last week. One official said, “It makes a lot of sense for a lot of different reasons.” Another said, “That’s Trout — he’s always paying attention to stuff beyond what he’s doing.”
Of course, I have to agree that the suggestion is a great one. As Olney notes, the turnover rate for umpires every year is relatively low, so younger, less-experienced umpires have few opportunities to get a feel for what it’s like calling major league action. Even beyond the actual interpretation of the rules, interacting with big league personalities would also be helpful for minor league umpires.