Rays players relish memories from WBC

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. — Ben Zobrist’s trip produced many memories, but the smallest held the most power. They came in flashes: Walking in a clubhouse with his No. 12 jersey stitched in the United States colors, playing for a veteran coaching staff led by manager Joe Torre, looking at a nameplate above his locker and knowing that he was charged to represent the red, white and blue on a worldwide stage.

The World Baseball Classic was a pause in the sleepy build-up to Opening Day, a taste of October in March for those who turned attention away from college basketball, the NFL offseason and the Miami Heat’s sprint at history. But for Zobrist and six other Tampa Bay Rays players who took part in the once-every-four-years showcase, it meant more: An experience to remember as ambassadors on a diamond, as delegates of their game.

“It was electric,” said Zobrist, an infielder/outfielder for Tampa Bay who went 3-for-11 in four games. “It was interesting to go from offseason and spring training straight into a super-intense atmosphere of national pride, taking stage on a baseball field. I even felt like it was different than a major-league playoff experience, because you’re wearing your nation’s colors. It’s not just your team’s colors. It’s your nation’s colors. For that, it was super special.”

Zobrist spoke Thursday morning in a Charlotte Sports Park clubhouse, after he was back to living a familiar routine in the countdown toward the Rays’ season opener against the Baltimore Orioles on April 2. Around him, media members hovered near closer Fernando Rodney’s stall, waiting to hear from the player who energized the Dominican Republic’s 8-0 run through the event that ended with a victory over Puerto Rico in the title game Tuesday in San Francisco.

Zobrist stood feet from his locker, before walking out an exit, toward a field for more work in these low-pressure days. As it appears through a Big Four lens, what Zobrist, Rodney, catcher Jose Molina (Puerto Rico), relievers Cesar Ramos (Mexico) and Alex Torres (Venezuela), and minor-league infielders Iago Januario (Brazil) and Leonardo Reginatto (Brazil) accomplished in the WBC was hardly more than an exhibition venture. More than once, analysts made mention during tournament broadcasts that “these games matter,” as if to pitch to the American viewing public that contests without a Major League Baseball logo are indeed worthy of their time.

Some casual fans, no doubt, required an argument, if they were curious enough to watch at all. After all, some of the sport’s largest names were absent: Mike Trout, Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols among them. Especially with the game’s stars, the WBC in its current stature represents a risk — injury, fatigue or under-use — as well as a reward.

Ask the Rays’ participants about WBC takeaways, though, and their messages are patriotic, nostalgic and even include anticipation to repeat it if asked. Sure, the event lacks the gravitas of the World Cup. Large chunks of empty seats were noticeable in the championship round at AT&T Park and at other sites in and outside the United States. But fulfillment was found from within, and each offered positive reviews.

“It was awesome,” said Molina, who went 0-for-3 in two games. “I enjoyed it from the top to bottom. All the way to the end, I enjoyed it.”

“The adrenaline is just like a big-league game,” said Ramos, who surrendered one run and three hits in 2 2/3 innings. “It was unbelievable. The atmosphere, everything was awesome.”

“It was a nice experience,” said Rodney, who earned seven saves in eight appearances. “We had good communication. We brought energy to the field everydday. We played … how we were supposed to. We played to win the championship. That’s why we won the trophy.”

There was no better display of the WBC’s value than hearing Rodney speak. From talk of a “magic plantain” to discussion about how the Dominican Republic “played like family” to lifting a medal from his locker to dangle before cameras, it was clear that the closer found satisfaction in what he achieved with his countrymen. He was proud.

The themes are predictable, but true: The WBC experience went beyond big-money contracts, worry about attendance figures and other bottom-line concerns. It was about pride, rallying around a common cause and showing, once again, sports’ power to unite and ignite passions among people with like bonds.

Have doubts? Ask Ramos, who watched a bench-clearing, ninth-inning brawl between Mexico and Canada on March 9 at Chase Field.

“Surprising and intense,” Ramos said of the day, a 10-3 Canada victory in the first round. “But it goes to show the pride. … It kind of shows the way ball is played.”

It was one memory of many after WBC 2013. None are too small to keep.

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.