- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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MIAMI -- Kansas City first baseman Eric Hosmer is having more fun than a baseball player should rightfully be allowed in spring training.
First off, he gets to return to his native South Florida this week and play before friends, relatives and former Plantation High School teammates who choose to buy tickets for the World Baseball Classic. He also gets to wear those cool red, white and blue duds for at least a few more days before rejoining his full-time employers, the Royals, back at Surprise Stadium in Arizona.
Ballplayers like to say there's "something special" about putting on a jersey with the name of their homeland stitched across the front. But as Hosmer reiterated that claim Monday, he happened to be clad in a blue pullover with "USA" in red and white across his chest. The look on his face and the tone of his voice suggested he wasn't just paying lip service to the concept of baseball-as-patriotism.
"I think you can see on TV how emotional the games get," Hosmer said. "When you come here as a pro, you have Marlins fans and your Kansas City Royal fans. The fun thing about this [event] is, it brings everybody together. To hear those 'USA' chants, it gives you chills every time you're on first base and you listen to it."
Hosmer and his fellow Team USA players will get to experience those chills again Tuesday night at 8 when they take the field against Puerto Rico in Round 2 of the WBC in Miami. The Dominican Republic and Italy were scheduled to begin the day-night doubleheader at 1 p.m.
For manager Joe Torre's players, the prospect of a few more games with "USA" on the front of their jerseys certainly beats returning to spring training with tire tracks across their backs.
Team USA seemed destined for embarrassment after losing to Mexico to begin the first round in Phoenix. Then David Wright's grand slam helped loosen the collar in a 6-2 win over Italy, and Hosmer and Adam Jones contributed big doubles late in a 9-4 win over Canada that propelled the Americans to the second round.
It's a diverse and potentially very entertaining field here in Miami. The Dominican lineup, led by Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano, scored 19 runs and hit .324 in three games at Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan, P.R. The Puerto Rican squad, meanwhile, advanced thanks to a 2.33 ERA from its pitching staff and some big hits from Cleveland infielder Mike Aviles and San Francisco center fielder Angel Pagan.
Italy brings a nice little NCAA tournament Cinderella vibe to this WBC bracket. The Italians won two of three in the first round after being inspired by manager Marco Mazzieri, who is not averse to using visual aids in his pep talks. Before the Classic began, Mazzieri held up pictures of Marlins Park and AT&T Park, the tournament's last two venues, as a carrot to his players.
The ploy helped inspire the Italians, who are slowly building a following as baseball's Little Gondola That Could.
"It would be nice to get some coverage," said Dodgers infielder Nick Punto, Italy's second baseman. "We played the first two games [in Phoenix] and the U.S. hadn't even played yet. It was like they were trying to get us out of the way. I get it -- I understand why. You have to know what sells. We've made a name for ourselves now. Hopefully people will start noticing."
For all its emotion and feel-good stories, the WBC remains a target for dissection. One lingering complaint concerns the absence of many big names from the tournament. Team USA's pitching staff has been plugging away without Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw, David Price, Cole Hamels, Chris Sale, Cliff Lee and Jered Weaver, among others. Torre is trying to balance a desire to win with a pledge to individual clubs to get their Classic participants the work they need to be ready for the regular-season openers.
As always, the debate continues over the optimal time to hold the event. Chicago White Sox first baseman Paul Konerko was the latest to weigh in when he suggested that interest in the WBC would increase if the tournament were held in July.
"There's never going to be a right way to do this tournament," said outfielder Shane Victorino. "End of season. Beginning of season. Midseason. It's always hard."
For several of the participants, South Florida is synonymous with a homecoming. Team USA catcher J.P. Arencibia is a Miami native, and outfielder Ryan Braun is a former Miami Hurricane. Team Italy first baseman Anthony Rizzo grew up in Parkland, Fla., and was bound for Florida Atlantic University before Boston selected him in the sixth round of the 2007 draft. And Washington lefty Gio Gonzalez, who will start against Puerto Rico on Tuesday, is a Hialeah guy. He watched Team USA's 9-4 victory over Canada on Sunday at a Flanigan's Seafood Bar & Grill in his old backyard.
"I was just going nuts, having some chicken wings and water," Gonzalez said.
Hosmer, 23, was born in Broward County, Fla., and played high school ball about 30 miles from Miami. His father was good friends with Jack McKeon's family, and the Hosmers were regulars at Pro Player Stadium when Trader Jack came to town as Cincinnati Reds manager and later ran the Marlins. Hosmer was 8 years old when the family snagged seats for the Marlins' 3-2 win over Cleveland in Game 7 of the 1997 World Series. He remembers Bobby Bonilla's home run off Jaret Wright landing "about seven seats" away from him.
"My uncle took me to that game," Hosmer said. "I think this will be pretty similar to that. The atmosphere won't be as [intense] as a World Series. But if anything is a close second, this is it."
Two prominent members of the Dominican squad, shortstop Jose Reyes and third baseman Hanley Ramirez, are in for a little homecoming of their own. A year ago, they were preparing for a big season with an Ozzie Guillen-led team burdened by great expectations. But the hype quickly gave way to some bad baseball at 501 Marlins Way, and owner Jeffrey Loria began dismantling the squad piece by piece last summer.
The Marlins traded Ramirez to the Dodgers in July and sent Reyes to Toronto in a stunner of a trade in November. The deals generated some hard feelings on the part of Reyes and pitcher Mark Buehrle, who felt deceived by Loria after signing long-term contracts with the club. But Reyes and Ramirez stowed any negative vibes in the name of international diplomacy Monday.
"Jose and I don't keep bad things in our minds," Ramirez said. "Everybody knows this is a business. When I think about the times that we were here, the fans, the team and everybody treated us good. We have good memories that we're never going to forget. And we're really happy to be back here."
If you say so, Hanley.
The only items left on the agenda now are winning games and leaving enough tickets at the will-call window. Gonzalez, besieged by requests during previous trips to South Florida, has drawn the line at six tickets this time around because he wants to give himself time to actually focus on pitching.
Torre is also trying to stand firm, but he's not having much luck. Upon arrival in Miami, he heard from a certain Puerto Rican-born catcher who played a central role on five World Series championship clubs with the Yankees. Torre just couldn't say no.
"I got a call from [Jorge] Posada this morning," Torre said. "He told me he was going to pull for Puerto Rico, which is understandable. And then he asked me for tickets."
Torre obliged with the seats, but that's where his charity ends. Team USA made it this far by winning baseball games. There's no point in revising the storyline now.
Team USA opens second-round play Tuesday night against Puerto Rico.