PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. — Joel Peralta sifted through his locker, his mind prepping for another day of spring training but his heart more than 1,000 miles away. On Sunday morning, the Tampa Bay Rays reliever continued his routine: changing from a dark-blue T-shirt into uniform for a game against the Boston Red Sox, holding court with teammates in a corner of a Charlotte Sports Park clubhouse, working through these slow hours in the weeks before Opening Day.
Peralta was asked about the World Baseball Classic, and his tone turned subdued. He looked ahead, toward the back of his stall, feet to the left of a television tuned to MLB Network broadcasting WBC highlights from the day before. There was regret in his voice that he wasn’t in San Juan, Puerto Rico, representing his native country, the Dominican Republic. There was regret that he’s missing it all.
“It’s awful watching those guys play and be there for my country,” Peralta said. “It feels like I want to be there, but I can’t. I’m kind of disappointed.”
His disappointment stems from a decision to miss the WBC with his health in mind. The 36-year-old native of Bonao, Dominican Republic was selected as a member of his national team’s roster, but he announced in February his choice to skip the event, held once every four years, because of a lingering neck injury.
On Sunday, there were signs of the WBC’s impact. Seven lockers stood unoccupied, one for each player the Rays sent to the event. The blue No. 56 jersey of closer Fernando Rodney, pitching for the Dominican Republic, hanged on a hook two spots to his left. Peralta picked at his fingernails as he said, “I should be there right now.”
“The way they’ve been playing now, they can go all the way,” Peralta said of the Dominican Republic. “If they keep playing that way — if they keep hitting, their pitching has been OK. They have a pretty good team — speed, power, defense, all around. If they take care of themselves and they hit (well), they can go all the way, for sure.”
So far, Peralta’s prediction seems possible. The Dominican Republic (3-0) is one of two teams in Pool C, along with Puerto Rico, to advance to the second round. It beat Venezuela, Spain and Puerto Rico by a combined score of 19-8.
As a result, the Dominican Republic is part of a four-team, double-elimination pool in the second round — along with Italy, Puerto Rico and the United States – that will determine which two squads move on to a four-team championship round to be held March 17-19 in San Francisco. The Dominican Republic opens second-round play against Italy at 1 p.m. ET Tuesday in Miami.
“They’re playing awesome,” said Peralta, an eight-year veteran. “They’re scoring a lot of runs. Their pitching has been better. The first game (against Venezuela), the pitching wasn’t as sharp — a lot of walks and falling behind the hitters. (Saturday against Spain), it looked really good. Rodney has been doing his job. … They have a pretty good team all around.”
But Peralta is forced to be a spectator to the effort, despite his desire to contribute in the WBC for the first time. He knows most of the players on the Dominican Republic team. As of Sunday morning, he hadn’t spoken to any, though he had plans to call Rodney later in the afternoon.
Rays manager Joe Maddon isn’t concerned Peralta’s absence from the event will affect the player. Instead, he has seen Peralta continue to mentor others.
“Just watching him around here, I don’t think it’s that highly impactful,” Maddon said. “That’s my impression. I think he does such a great job around here … what he does among a lot of the young Latins. We have a lot of young Latin players here right now. He hasn’t talked to me about it. … Every time I see him, he’s absolutely mentoring one of our young players, and it’s obvious. So I think he’s too darn busy to miss it.”
Still, part of Peralta is missing it. As he spoke Sunday morning, highlights of the brawl between Canada and Mexico were beamed on the television nearby. Some in the clubhouse paused to watch.
The WBC carried on, without Peralta. But his heart remained with his country.
“Every time I see them play,” Peralta said of the Dominican Republic, “it feels like my adrenaline is pumping.”