The NCAA men’s basketball tournament starts Tuesday, and NBA and NHL teams are battling for playoff position as their respective regular seasons wind down. Where the World Baseball Classic will find space in the American sports conscience isn’t clear.
It’s likely more attention will be paid to where Aaron Rodgers decides to play.
But that isn’t the point.
It’s that 36 million people in Japan watched an exhibition game between their national team and the Orix Buffaloes. Or that the baseball-loving populace of Taiwan celebrated wildly Friday when their team beat Italy for their first WBC victory since 2013.
Italy manager Mike Piazza told reporters afterward he was surprised at how loud the crowd was at Taichung Intercontinental Stadium in Taiwan, even when the home team was batting.
“You could even see it on TV but when you’re in the stadium, it’s a whole different experience,” Piazza said.
Fans at JetBlue Park got a taste of it last week when the Red Sox played Puerto Rico in a practice game. Puerto Rico fans at one point formed a band that paraded through the stands tapping on hand-held drums and blowing trumpets as others trailed and danced to the music. Before too long, all the fans joined in. It was a party.
The WBC is for those fans and the people in those countries who will watch from home.
“We’re trying to globalize the game,” said Red Sox manager Alex Cora, who was Puerto Rico’s general manager in the 2017 WBC. “It’s not the best of best [players], we know that. But the teams that are playing are the best of the best.
“At one point, hopefully, all the big dogs play and it’ll be super teams against super teams.”
Puerto Rico advanced to the championship game in 2017, losing it to the United States.
“The country stopped for two weeks,” Cora said. “There was no negative news. It was unreal. We had a parade and we lost.”
That Mike Trout and Mookie Betts decided to play for Team USA was a breakthrough; Trout passed up the opportunity in 2017. His presence on the team this time helped recruit others and manager Mark DeRosa has what amounts to an All-Star team, even if Aaron Judge and a few other stars decided to sit it out.
As a Puerto Rican, Cora believes Team USA needs to be at full strength for the WBC to make a real impact. The other teams stocked with major leaguers — the Dominican Republic, Japan, the Netherlands, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela — want to play against the best.
“There’s a balance, understanding what the tournament means to the world,” Cora said. “I do believe when Team USA is invested, people get excited. You start thinking about Mookie and Trout and all the guys playing for them, it’s fun.”
When the Dominican Republic gathered its team for a workout last week, a group of about 40 journalists from the country were on hand. They treated the players like rock stars.
Nelson Cruz, who put the team together as its GM and is on the roster, spoke eloquently in English and Spanish about what the tournament meant to his country.
“For us in the Dominican, baseball is in our DNA,” he said. “It’s life-changing for us. We have such a love of the game. It’s all about baseball for us. Our job as a team is to make those people proud. This is a great experience.”
It’s best to watch the WBC from that perspective and not be worried that a star player from your favorite team might turn an ankle. The Czech Republic is fielding a team made almost entirely of native players from its own semipro league. There are only three American players with Czech ancestry. The Czech manager, Pavel Chadim, has been part of the national team program since the late 1990s. He’s also Dr. Chadim, a neurologist in the city of Brno. That’s his real job.
Japan has the most fascinating team in the tournament, if only because Shohei Ohtani is on the roster.
But Samurai Japan also has Roki Sasaki, the best 21-year-old pitcher on the planet. The righthander has a 102.5-mile-per-hour fastball and what scouts describe as a “wipeout” forkball.
Sasaki joined the Chiba Lotte Marines in 2021 and is 13-6 with a 1.95 ERA since and 260 strikeouts over 212⅔ innings. He had a perfect game with 19 strikeouts against Orix last April, then pitched eight perfect innings in his next start.
Sasaki said his goal is to pitch in the majors. The belief in Japan is that Chiba Lotte will wait until Sasaki is 25 before making him available to major league teams.
Japan also has its first non-Japanese citizen on the national team roster, Cardinals outfielder Lars Nootbaar, who was born in California. His mother is Japanese and his father is Dutch.
Another player to watch is Korea center fielder Jung-hoo Lee. He had a .996 OPS last season with 32 strikeouts in 627 plate appearances in the Korean Baseball Organization.
His father, KBO legend Jong-beom Lee, was nicknamed “Son of the Wind” because of his prowess in stealing bases. Jung-hoo Lee is known as “Grandson of the Wind.”
Former Sox bring a lot of value
It was good to see Mike Lowell and Mitch Moreland in uniform as coaches last week. It should happen more often.
Major league game-plan coordinator and catching coach Jason Varitek and Triple A hitting coach Rich Gedman already have important roles, but the Red Sox could use more input from prominent former players.
Playing for the Red Sox is a unique experience for many reasons and successful former players are often the best equipped to offer advice to current players or be consulted by the front office. Even if it’s a part-time position, high-character people such as Lowell, Moreland, Brock Holt, Will Middlebrooks, Dustin Pedroia, or Rick Porcello would be invaluable.
Pedro Martinez and David Ortiz are around the team on occasion and Dwight Evans, Jim Rice, Luis Tiant, and Tim Wakefield have ambassador-type roles. But more can be done.
“Bring people in and talk about what leadership is and culture,” manager Alex Cora said. “These guys [like Lowell and Moreland] were grinders; these guys weren’t superstars. But they were really good for us, they won championships, they did it the right way.
“For them to be around everybody in [the clubhouse] and talk, that’s what we’re trying to accomplish.”
Moreland, who last played in August 2021 and confirmed he’s retired this spring, is staying busy coaching his sons. He had a full batting cage in a barn in his back yard in Alabama.
Would he ever consider a position with the Sox?
“I’d like to get involved in the game again someday,” he said. “These few days have been great. We’ll see what happens down the road.”
A few other observations on the Red Sox:
▪ Here’s a remarkable stat: Chris Sale’s start against the Tigers on Monday was the first time since 2019 he pitched in a spring training game.
Sale injured his elbow during spring training in 2020 and had Tommy John surgery. He was still recovering in ‘21 and was in rehab mode throughout camp. Sale then fractured a rib during the lockout last season and missed all of spring training again.
“That occurred to me before the game, that I hadn’t really pitched in spring training in a long time,” Sale said. “I missed it. I missed a lot of things.”
Sale is 6-0 with a 1.99 ERA in 13 career Grapefruit League games.
▪ To get a sense of when Trevor Story can help the Red Sox, keep an eye on Bryce Harper.
Harper had Tommy John surgery Nov. 23. Story had a modified, less invasive version of that procedure Jan. 9 to repair a tear in his ulnar collateral ligament.
Harper reported to Phillies camp this past Thursday and swung at balls off a tee. The hope is that he could DH in June. Swinging a bat does not stress the UCL, so it’s plausible Story could be in the lineup as a DH around the All-Star break.
It would be longer — perhaps even next season — before he can play shortstop.
Story took ground balls on the field for the first time Thursday and has done some other defensive drills. But he hasn’t thrown the ball. He also has yet to start swinging a bat. That could come in late April.
Story will face another challenge when he returns: speeding up. He took an average of 21.8 seconds between pitches with bases empty last season according to BaseballSavant.com. Only three hitters took longer. Now Story will have approximately seven seconds between pitches before he has to be in the box and attentive to the pitcher. That is something he can get ironed out during a minor league rehab assignment.
▪ According to Baseball America, 27 of the 33 Red Sox spring training games will be televised this year. One was on ESPN with the rest on NESN (17), NESN-Plus (5), or NESN 360 (4).
The count doesn’t include broadcasts from other teams.
Only the Dodgers (30) and Cubs (29) have more. Fourteen teams have 10 or fewer with the Orioles and Nationals on only four times.
Notable teams such as the Astros (9), Giants (6), and Guardians (8) are only on occasionally.
▪ Jackie Bradley Jr. is in Royals camp on a minor league contract. Kansas City needed help when two outfielders on their 40-man roster were injured. Drew Watson has an oblique strain and Diego Hernandez has a dislocated shoulder.
A third outfielder, Brewer Hicklen, has an elbow strain. The Royals also would prefer to have 24-year-old Samad Taylor start the season in the minors.
As a veteran, Bradley has the right to opt out of his contract March 25 if he is not going to be on the roster. Bradley, who turns 33 in April, would at the very least give the rebuilding Royals good defense.
Yadier Molina is ready for a break
Yadier Molina played 19 seasons in the majors before retiring last season. He then immediately became manager of Navegantes del Magallanes, the defending champion of the Venezuelan winter league.
Molina, 40, managed nearly all of the 59 games Magallanes played as they finished fourth in the eight-team league. Now he’s managing Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic.
Is this preparation for managing in the major leagues? Not yet.
“I’ll be with my son [Yanuell],” Molina said. “I have a 15-and-under team in Puerto Rico, I’ll be there for him. I’m going to be away from pro baseball.”
How long that will be is anybody’s guess.
“I think he’ll manage a team [in the majors] eventually,” said Christian Vázquez, who is playing for Puerto Rico. “Being around him, he has so much knowledge. He would be a great manager.”
Former Red Sox first-round pick Jay Groome is competing for the fifth spot in San Diego’s rotation. The 24-year-old lefthander worked 6⅔ scoreless innings in his first three appearances of spring training, allowing only three hits. “There’s a lot to like about him,” said Padres manager Bob Melvin, a man not prone to false praise. “He seems like he’s really confident. He’s got some deception, some right at the top of the zone. He’s got a breaking ball he can throw down into a righty and away. He’s on a mission to open some eyes here so the more you see him, the more you like him.” The well-funded Padres have a rotation opening after Joe Musgrove dropped a kettlebell on his left big toe and fractured it. The Sox traded Groome to the Padres last August in exchange for Eric Hosmer, who played in 14 games then was released after the season . . . Dodgers infielder Miguel Vargas has a fractured finger and can’t swing a bat. But he is still playing in games and has been ordered to just take pitches. He nevertheless drew four walks in his first 12 plate appearances . . . Yankees general manager Brian Cashman was carrying a blue notebook when he met with reporters at Steinbrenner Field this past Thursday. That was a bad sign, it turned out. A wave of injuries has hit the Yankees and Cashman wanted to make sure he had the details correct. Lefthander Carlos Rodón has a strained muscle in his upper forearm and will open the season on the injured list. The same is true for righthanded relievers Lou Trivino (ligament strain) and Tommy Kahnle (biceps tendonitis). Later in the day, the Yankees said center fielder Harrison Bader will be out with an oblique strain. One plus in Yankees camp: 21-year-old shortstop Anthony Volpe is pushing to make the team. “Let’s put it this way: Anthony Volpe’s doing everything he needs to do,” Cashman said. “Now we’ll see how, ultimately, he measures up compared to everybody else in our internal dialogues.” Volpe, a New Jersey native, carries himself with the confidence of an older player. The same is true of Red Sox shortstop prospect Marcelo Mayer. It won’t be too long before the Mayer and Volpe debates will bring back memories of the Nomar Garciaparra vs. Derek Jeter arguments . . . Don’t expect a David Ortiz-like glorious farewell tour for Miguel Cabrera, who turns 40 in April. The expectation is he will be a part-time player for the Tigers, getting in the lineup as a designated hitter against lefthanded starters. Cabrera is finally in the last season of his eight-year, $240 million contract. Since the extension started in 2016, Cabrera has been worth only 3.0 bWAR. As an aside, the first hit Rich Hill allowed in his career was a double by Cabrera in 2005. Hill was with the Cubs and Cabrera was a 22-year-old star with the Marlins . . . The Philadelphia Inquirer did an investigative story that linked chemicals in the artificial turf at old Veterans Stadium to the deaths of six Phillies players of brain cancer. Ken Brett, Tug McGraw, Johnny Oates, John Vukovich, Darren Daulton, and David West all died before the age of 60 from glioblastoma. The Phillies played at the Vet from 1971-2003 . . . The third annual Rich Gedman Golf Tournament benefiting the WooSox Foundation is scheduled for May 15, at the Haven Country Club in Boylston. WooSox players and coaches will attend and the event includes lunch, dinner, two drink tickets, and a gift. Golfers can register now at WooSoxFoundation.org/Golf . . . Happy birthday to Mike Aviles, who turns 42 Monday. The infielder from Middletown, N.Y., played at Division 2 Concordia College and was drafted in 2003 after his senior year. He signed for $1,000 and fought his way to the majors in 2008. Aviles played for the Red Sox from 2011-12. Sandy Leon turns 34 Monday. The sturdy catcher played 358 games for the Sox from 2015-19 and appeared in 15 playoff games.