Young stars must carry USA torch

Gordon Edes

TORONTO – Chipper Jones knew him only by reputation. Ater a few days of having Dustin Pedroia dress next to him in Team USA's clubhouse, what had he learned?

Jones knows a fat pitch when he sees one, which explained the smile slowly spreading across his face.

"About what I expected,'' Jones said. "A guy firing in Red Bull after Red Bull after cup of coffee after cup of coffee.

"High-energy guy. A little sparkplug. I can see why he's putting up numbers worthy of an MVP. He's certainly going to be a big part of this team. A guy like that, when he's in the lineup and in the clubhouse, he fires you up.''

But can Pedroia – and David Wright and Ryan Braun and Curtis Granderson and a new generation of stars wearing the red, white and blue – ignite the passion of a country that has yet to embrace the World Baseball Classic with the same fervor that Japan and Korea, Mexico and Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, have shown?

The answer is not likely to come as soon as Saturday afternoon in the Rogers Centre, where Team USA will play home-team Canada before an expected crowd of 40,000 that would love nothing more than to see Canada pull off a repeat of its first-round upset in the inaugural WBC. But by the end of this 16-day event, which concludes with a championship game in Dodger Stadium March 23, the future of the tournament may well depend on whether U.S. fans respond with more than a collective shrug.

Winning, of course, might go a long way toward accelerating that process. Jones is one of four players (Derek Jeter, Scot Shields and Jake Peavy are the others) who played for Team USA in the inaugural WBC in 2006, when the Americans were bounced in the second round, not enough time for fans of the Red Sox and Yankees and Dodgers and Royals to have their attention diverted from the fortunes of their hometown nines.

"In '06,'' Jones said, "we basically thought we'd throw our bats and gloves on the field and win ballgames. Man, we found out real quick, No. 1, they've got a lot of good players in other countries, and No. 2, they're hungry to beat us. We're the ones with the targets on our backs.''

The younger generation, Jones said, is ready to take up the cause, not only of reasserting U.S. superiority, but of selling the brand globally. He and Jeter, the old hands on this team, will soon be passing the torch.

"I believe that,'' he said, "and I think the game is in good hands with ambassadors like them. When a guy like Jeter finally goes by the wayside, it'll be guys like D-Wright and Dustin and some of the other guys on the Red Sox and Yankees uniforms who are going to have to take on that mantle.

"You certainly feel good about it, as an older player, knowing that it's going to be in their hands.''

Davey Johnson, the Team USA manager and former All-Star second baseman who has declared his the team to beat in the tournament, said there is little question that Pedroia will leave his stamp on this team.

"I love his makeup, his approach, you can see how important he is to a ballclub,'' Johnson said. "I had his number [15] when I broke in with the Baltimore organization, and he's doing it great justice.

"His approach is contagious. And Boston has got two of those guys. [Kevin] Youkilis is the same way.''

Youkilis and Pedroia will form the right side of Johnson's infield. Wright will be the primary third baseman, with Jones mostly serving as DH. Granderson will be flanked in center field by Braun and slugger Adam Dunn, a last-minute addition to the team. Shane Victorino, cut from the same overachieving little-guy cloth as Pedroia, will share center but could also play some right field. Up-and-coming Brian McCann and Chris Iannetta will share time behind the plate, replacing veteran Jason Varitek, who caught in '06.

The All-Star approach taken by the U.S. in 2006, shuffling players in and out after just a couple of at-bats, won't work in the WBC, Johnson said, which is why he is not happy about his shortstop options. How can a guy who has the pick of Jeter and Jimmy Rollins be unhappy?

"You've got to take one of them,'' he said."You can't take both, no matter how much people would like to have two great players at one position. For me, it's not a good situation. I'm damned if I do and damned if I don't.''

Johnson said his plan is to alternate the shortstops, but admits it's an unacceptable solution. "There are too many off days,'' he said. "You can't do that. It's possible we may play eight games in 17 days. We've cut our position players from 16 to 13, and I think we could even cut it to 12. One utility guy, an extra outfielder, and an extra catcher.

"Having as many pitchers as we do early is a good thing, but down the line, as we advance in this thing, that's too many.''

Johnson would like to see the tournament condensed into a shorter time frame, and also believes the WBC would be better served if played at midseason. "The power arms are not ready in March,'' he said, "and hitters are still working on getting down their power strokes.''

But those are issues for another time. Canada awaits Saturday, with Peavy getting the start, backed by a bullpen deep in arms but hurt by late withdrawals of proven closers Joe Nathan, B.J. Ryan and Brian Fuentes. Venezuela and Italy are also in this pool, with a double-elimination format determining which two teams advance. With more speed, versatility and youth, the Americans should make to the next round in Miami.

But how many of their countrymen will be watching?