To Ryan Braun and his United States teammates, the World Baseball Classic means much more than a glorified exhibition.
As the United States begins play in the tournament Friday against Mexico, Braun wants to bring the title of best baseball team in the world to his home country.
“Our goal is to win this thing,” Braun said. “We didn’t come in to compete, we didn’t come in to help grow the brand of baseball. We’re in the tournament to win it. That’s my goal, that’s everybody’s goal, and certainly that’s our expectation as we enter the tournament.”
The World Baseball Classic certainly has its critics – Brewers manager Ron Roenicke being one – and some feel the future of the tournament could depend on how this year’s version takes off in the United States.
With so many of baseball’s biggest stars passing on the opportunity to represent their countries due to fear of injuries or just to focus on the upcoming season, the World Baseball Classic needs stars like Braun to show his excitement to play.
“I think everybody has a unique perspective, especially because the tournament’s so new,” Braun said. “This is only the third time they’ve ever done it, so I think there are certainly guys that have different opinions, different ideas, different visions of what the tournament is and what it represents.
“For me personally it’s a tremendous honor. I couldn’t imagine ever saying no. I thought in 2009 it was one of the most enjoyable baseball experiences I’ve ever had, and certainly it was a no-brainer to commit to doing it again. But again, everybody has a different perspective.”
While the United States starting lineup is stacked with firepower, this year’s team may be better built from top to bottom. Though some big names opted not to play, manager Joe Torre opted to fill his bench with different types of role players that could pay dividends down the road.
“I think you need role players,” Braun said. “You look at regular teams throughout the course of the season, those role players are instrumental in teams finding a way to win games. It’s certainly important to have versatility.
“You get a guy like Ben Zobrist that can play a little bit of everything, Shane Victorino can play all over the outfield. Having guys like that is certainly beneficial when you get into a tournament setting like this where you might need to pinch hit or you get into extra innings.”
Braun will be in the lineup and likely hitting third or fourth for Friday’s pool play opener against Mexico, but Brewers teammate Jonathan Lucroy will likely be one of those role players off the bench.
Lucroy will probably start one of the three pool games, but Joe Mauer is regarded as the number one catcher.
“He’s one of three catchers we’re going to have here,” Torre said. “He’ll get what he needs.
“Especially last year, the kind of year he had, he’s worked hard at his trade and it’s paying off for him at this point. He was all over being invited to this. He was really excited, as was Ryan Braun. When I called him (Braun) there was no hesitation in his accepting.”
Because its pool games are all located at Chase Field in Phoenix, the atmosphere will be electric, especially for Friday’s game when Mexico will have a large contingent of fans attending. Adding to the excitement for Braun and Lucroy will be the fact that teammate Yovani Gallardo will get the start on the mound for Mexico.
“I know the last time I played, just the atmosphere and the environment, it felt like the intensity of a playoff game,” Braun said. “We opened up against Canada in Canada and that was one of the more intense baseball games I’ve ever been a part of. As a competitor that really makes it a lot of fun.
‘You want a lively environment. I think it’s great if people are rooting for us but either way as long as there’s some energy, some excitement (and) some enthusiasm I think it makes it a lot of fun.”
FOXSportsArizona.com’s Tyler Lockman contributed to this story.