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Friday, March 3, 2006
National pride oozing from Team USA

By Jerry Crasnick
ESPN.com

PHOENIX -- Dontrelle Willis made his high school varsity team as a freshman, so he learned 10 years ago what it means to feel all tingly inside slipping on a new uniform.

Still, the sartorial thrill he experienced Friday surpassed anything he ever felt as a member of the Encinal High Jets.

Willis and his World Baseball Classic teammates caught a 7 a.m. bus to Chase Field for a morning of photos, media interviews and their first workout as a unit. When Willis entered the home clubhouse and saw the red, white and blue double-knits, it brought out the patriotic fervor in him.

Chipper Jones
Third baseman Chipper Jones is ready to represent on the world stage.
"I saw my uniform hanging with the name 'Willis,' and I just stepped back," he said. "I'm not a real emotional guy when it comes to stuff like that, but this is one of those things that's bigger than the individual.

"Even as a young boy, I wanted to make a USA team, in the junior nationals or whatever. I'm so happy and so blessed to be a part of this. Even though I'm just 24, I can say I was one of the first."

Willis' natural exuberance over playing for Team USA belies the mixed messages making the rounds these days. The first World Baseball Classic appears to be generating a huge amount of interest in baseball-mad Venezuela, the Dominican Republic and Japan. But it remains to be seen whether the event will catch on in America, where it's competing with March Madness and "American Idol" for the public's attention.

The U.S. team's effort to build momentum has run into early withdrawals (Tim Hudson and Barry Bonds) and late scratches (Billy Wagner and C.C. Sabathia), not to mention a single-minded attempt by Yankees owner George Steinbrenner to take a battering ram to the concept. Steinbrenner has groused about everything from the injury factor to the disruptive impact of the event on teams' spring training plans.

One of Steinbrenner's most prominent players, Alex Rodriguez, generated lots of headlines by vacillating over whether to play for Team USA or the Dominican squad in the tournament. But Rodriguez is now gung-ho after spending lots of time talking to his brother, Victor, a 30-year Air Force veteran.

"As corny as this sounds, I got little bumps and chills when I saw my uniform," Rodriguez said. "It's an enormous deal. When you wear this uniform, you have a chance to represent over [280] million Americans."

Rodriguez deftly sidestepped questions about Steinbrenner's objections to the tournament.

"The Boss is the Boss," he said. "He has his opinion, and we all respect it."

To get his players in the requisite competitive mind-set, USA manager Buck Martinez showed a four-minute videotape Thursday night featuring stirring moments from the United States' gold-medal victory in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. The players sat at rapt attention as they watched clips of Pat Borders' home-plate collisions with the Cubans, and they shouted out en masse in response to Doug Mientkiewicz's climactic homer against Korea in the semifinal game.

After Team USA held a crisp 2½-hour workout Friday, Martinez raved about the "team building" going on in the clubhouse. As his players try to bond on the fly, the manager is doing his best to learn their individual comfort zones and tendencies.

At one point in batting practice, Martinez sidled up to Texas infielder Michael Young.

"Do you bunt regularly?" Martinez asked.

"Yeah, if one time a year is regularly," Young replied.

Team USA is loaded in the infield -- with Derrek Lee at first base, Young at second, Derek Jeter at shortstop and Rodriguez at third -- and extremely deep in the bullpen. On any given night, Brad Lidge, Huston Street, Joe Nathan or Chad Cordero could be called on to close.

Because of injuries and defections, Team USA doesn't have much depth in the starting rotation. Jake Peavy will start the opener against Mexico on Tuesday, and Martinez will load up on left-handers against Canada's predominantly lefty-hitting lineup in Game 2 on Wednesday. Willis will start and be followed by Al Leiter, with Colorado's Brian Fuentes also expected to pitch out of the bullpen.

Roger Clemens will work two innings in an exhibition against the San Francisco Giants on Sunday in Scottsdale, then start Friday against South Africa in what looks like a world-caliber mismatch.

To a man, the U.S. players interviewed Friday expressed an unflinching commitment to the tournament. Martinez saw it on display during his first clubhouse meeting.

"When a manager speaks to a team, he's always looking around and checking eyes and seeing focus," Martinez said. "Today, the eyes were focused and the jaws were set. There was no inane questioning -- no, 'How come we're here so early?' or 'What about the team picture?' There was none of that."

Ken Griffey Jr., who recently spent two weeks watching the Winter Olympics with his kids, saw it as a way to introduce them to the meaning of national pride in athletic competition. Now, he glances down at the blue-and-red "USA" across his chest and feels the impact firsthand.

"You're not playing for a city," Griffey said. "You're playing for a whole country. There's a difference."

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN Insider. His book "License To Deal" has been published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.