The World Baseball Classic is back. Soon enough, the red, white and blue rejections will be too.
The event is a smashing success in Asia and Latin America and an afterthought in the United States, with many of the top U.S. players declining to participate. The last U.S. roster did not include Mike Trout, Clayton Kershaw or Andrew McCutchen.
When Mexico opens its WBC qualifier on Thursday in Mexicali, its first baseman will be Adrian Gonzalez. For five days in spring training, the
"Mexico is playing," Gonzalez said. "If I can play and if it's the right time for me to play, I'm going to play."
The WBC is intended to help popularize baseball around the world. That a player of Gonzalez's stature — a five-time All-Star — would agree to appear in a qualifying round drew the heartfelt appreciation of Commissioner Rob Manfred.
"Adrian's participation in the qualifiers reflects his deep passion for growing the game in Mexico, which is a goal shared by Major League Baseball," Manfred said. "The Dodgers have a proud history of global ambassadors for our sport, and I applaud Adrian's leadership and commitment to the Mexican national team."
In addition to Mexico, teams from the Czech Republic, Germany and Nicaragua will compete in Mexicali. The winning team claims a spot in the 2017 WBC, and major leaguers need not have participated in the qualifiers to compete.
Gonzalez, 33, has represented Mexico in each of the three previous editions of the WBC — in 2006, 2009 and 2013. He said the annual Caribbean Series — for teams in Mexico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Venezuela — nurtures the desire of Latin players to join their national team.
"Maybe it's because we play in the Caribbean Series that we have passion to play for our countries," Gonzalez said. "For whatever reason, the U.S. players don't have that same passion."
Julio Urias, the Dodgers' 19-year-old pitching prodigy, said he grew up in Mexico as a position player and as a fervent fan of a certain major league first baseman.
"David Ortiz," Urias said, smiling.
Urias did see Gonzalez play, on television in the major leagues, and in a Mexican winter league stint in Mazatlan.
"Adrian Gonzalez is a great baseball player and a great representative of our country," Urias said through a interpreter. "Just to be part of a qualifier says a lot about him and what he represents. He sets an example for other players."
Urias wanted to play for Mexico, too. The Mexican team included him on its preliminary roster in the hope the Dodgers would agree. They did not, Urias said.
"We're big advocates for the WBC, in a general sense," said Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers' president of baseball operations. "It does wonders for expanding the game internationally and increasing our footprint.
"Selfishly, we're focused on making sure it doesn't impact our ability to get ready for the season. Each case is unique and different."
Friedman declined to say whether the Dodgers would allow Urias to participate next year if Mexico advances out of the qualifying round.
The WBC takes place during spring training, and clubs generally have less concern about approving the participation of a position player. They are wary of a potential conflict between a major league team interested in gradually increasing a pitcher's workload during the spring and a WBC team anxious to ride its best arms to the outer limits of a pitch count.
The concern for injury among any player is a factor; the Dodgers lost shortstop Hanley Ramirez for the first month of the 2013 season after his thumb was broken during the WBC.
If Gonzalez can help expand the popularity of baseball in Mexico by playing in the WBC qualifier, he's all in.
"If we win and get back into the World Baseball Classic next year, it can only increase the amount of kids that are playing," he said. "Only good things can come out of it, not bad things."