PHOENIX — A typical game at Chase Field is nothing to write home about. The stadium’s roof is typically closed, the air conditioning is blasting and the only thing more miserable than the National League West battles inside is the sweltering heat outside.
When five teams set foot in the desert this weekend for the World Baseball Classic’s Pool C, which has been expanded to 20 teams, presumably the glorious skies of Maricopa County will be on full display and the often-moribund ballpark will be alive with sounds and smells of everything that isn’t “major league” about baseball.
History alone provides a fascinating enough backdrop based on the nations showing up, with stories extending to lineages that are based on colonialism (you guessed it) as they never have before.
Twenty-two players on Great Britain’s 30-player roster are born in the U.S. A tad awkward, but most people understand the dance for this particular tournament. Throw in a couple guys from the Bahamas (unfortunately, no Jazz Chisholm) and the British Virgin Islands, and you’ve got a team. A whopping five guys were born in what’s listed only as the United Kingdom. Heck, one dude was born in Canada.
Apparently, there was even talk that that Cuban fireballer Aroldis Chapman of the Kansas City Royals was going to play for Great Britain because his grandparents were Jamaican. The sun never sets on the empire, etc. Point is, while we’re in the business of playing reasonably fast and loose with our concepts of nationality, let’s try a thought experiment.
What if the United States fielded a team of Black Americans?
Before you go screaming about which lives matter, just think about it. Puerto Rico, for example, is part of the U.S. Certainly a separate baseball nation, the tournament would be absurd to not have them on their own. Places like the Czech Republic, an adorable squad that has guys on it who are financial advisers and firefighters, is basically just there to have a good time. While there are bragging rights, it doesn’t REALLY matter, so why not honor as many heritages as possible?
To be clear, this would not come at the expense of a so-called regular Team USA and wouldn’t need to. Melting pots and so forth. But in addition? Would be great. One nation fielding two teams at international tournaments isn’t unheard of in say, the Olympics.
But while we’re here. Let’s give this thought experiment a spin. For what it’s worth, this was first suggested to me way back in 2018 by Jerry Lorenzo, the fashion designer, former agent of Matt Kemp. For the purposes of this exercise, let’s just say everyone is available, reasonably healthy and in their 2023 careers.
We’re having fun with this. It’s not some grand declaration of anything other than a good time ahead of what promises to be an exciting tournament. It’s pitcher-heavy because that’s how most rosters are built for this, but with a decent amount of variety. Let’s build a squad.
Infielders: Tim Anderson, Josh Bell, J.P. Crawford, Ke’bryan Hayes, Aaron Judge, Marcus Semien
Tim Anderson is certainly the anchor at shortstop, no questions asked. On the corners, Ke’bryan Hayes, who should have won a Gold Glove last year, is probably the best third baseman you’re not paying attention to and Josh Bell provides the kind of power you’re looking for out of a first baseman. J.P. Crawford and Marcus Semien are also versatile guys on the dirt. Also, there’s an outside argument that if pressed, Aaron Judge could play first, which is something he did in high school and has worked out with a little bit, for the New York Yankees. Meaning, if The Honorable is playing the field at all, that’s suboptimal.
Outfielders: Mookie Betts, Michael Brantley, Byron Buxton, Billy Hamilton, Michael Harris II, Cedric Mullins, Giancarlo Stanton
This is where things get more complicated. Since three of the six already play centerfield, that leaves an odd man out on the two-deep chart, positionally. So, we’re gonna make some decisions based on basic baseball. Michael Brantley and Michael Harris II throw left, so we’ll put them in right. I can’t decide if I’d start Cedric Mullins or Byron Buxton, but Mookie Betts in left with Giancarlo Stanton most likely DHing is fine by me. Billy Hamilton has speed to burn. He holds the MiLB single season stolen base record, FYI. Stanton, not unlike his Yankee teammate, is around mostly for DH purposes, a perfect bat to bring off the bench in a big spot.
Starters: Josiah Gray, Hunter Greene, Taylor Hearn, Triston McKenzie
On the mound, there are a lot more decisions to be made. Mainly because of how the tournament is structured. Some teams are listing as many as 20 pitchers on their rosters. The average is just below 16 for all 20 teams in the tournament. In a tournament with this level of variance is skill, you want as many arms as possible and of course, there’s a big league season around the corner.
Triston McKenzie is the ace here, simply because right now, at this moment in 2023, he’s the best pitcher of the group. Hunter Greene can obviously dial it up with anyone on earth — last year he threw 39 pitches at 100 mph or more in a game. Taylor Hearn is in the rotation mainly because I like being able to roll out a lefty to get you some innings if that’s a matchup advantage. Also, his cutter is tremendous. Josiah Gray struck out 10 in a no-decision outing last August that was delightful.
Bullpen: Amir Garrett, Carl Edwards Jr., Chris Archer, Justin Dunn, Taijuan Walker, Devin Williams, Art Warren, Duane Underwood Jr., David Price, Kumar Rocker, Taj Bradley, Juaron Watts-Brown
As I mentioned before, roster selection is a little funky in this thing, because you have a finite amount of games. Most of these humans could be, have been or are starters in the bigs. Yes, we’re bringing David Price out of retirement for this because, again, he’s a southpaw and just a clubhouse guy worth having. Devin Williams clearly is the setup man with his devastating airbender and Carl Edwards as my closer.
Kumar Rocker is a name I’m adding to this list not exactly for show, but because I’d be very interested to see how he’d throw in a setup like this. We’ve seen him dazzle in tournaments before, namely a no-hitter in the Super Regionals a couple years back. Taj Bradley has been blistering in the minors in the Tampa Bay Rays system. And Juaron Watts-Brown is site D1 Baseball’s 2023 Preseason Pitcher of the Year in the Big 12.
If you’re wondering where Marcus Stroman’s name is, well, he switched teams to play for Puerto Rico, his mother’s childhood home. He pitched arguably the best performance of his life against Puerto Rico in the finals of the last WBC in 2017. When he suits up this year he’ll be the first player to do it for two different teams in this tournament. Alex Rodriguez tried to play for the Dominican Republic, but got injured and never suited up.
Catchers: Chuckie Robinson, A.J. Lewis, Nick Hassan
Certainly, this is where the list gets extraordinarily thin. The subject of Black catchers being extinct is certainly no secret. One guy who was one of the best stories in the majors last year, Chuckie Robinson, is the clear choice here. He finally made it up to the bigs in 2022, and his first MLB homer was a great moment. Fun fact: His dad and grandad were pro catchers, too. A.J. Lewis is a name you’ve heard if you follow the Colorado Rockies organization. Nick Hassan is probably the best Black catcher in college baseball, and was on the Buster Posey National Collegiate Catcher of the Year Award watch list last season. The only reason Ian Moller isn’t named here is because he’s just too young.
Manager: Ron Washington
Absolute no-brainer for me. Yes, Houston Astros manager Dusty Baker is obviously a great option, but with all Washington’s been through and his desire to still lead a team, it’s gotta be Wash. Not to mention that his aggressiveness on the basepaths is exactly what we like to see.
Interestingly enough, the actual Team USA this year has quite the diverse cast of coaches, including some names that need no introduction such as Ken Griffey Jr., and Jerry Manuel. Add to that list veteran big league infielder Lou Collier and we are well represented. I’d throw in Marvin Freeman and Marquis Grissom as well, as pitching and hitting coaches.
Not for nothing, but that’s a pretty solid squad. Yes, there are more people we could have picked or discussed, but the point was to build a roster. Would MLB ever go for this? Highly unlikely. But don’t forget: The reason the game was even segregated to begin with was their idea.