For Spain, just one native but plenty of heart
Journeyman Gonzalez represents club's only player from Spanish property
BRADENTON, Fla. -- Eric Gonzalez might be considered unique among the players currently populating Team Spain's clubhouse.
He was drafted by the Padres in 2008, then spent three years in the lowest levels of San Diego's farm system before bouncing out of affiliated ball and into the independent Frontier League, where he's pitched the last two years for the Lake Erie Crushers. But there are many similar stories on Spain's 28-man roster.
The 26-year-old right-hander was born on the island of Tenerife, one of the Canary Islands and the property of Spain. He lived there for 16 years before coming to America. Gonzalez is unique in that he's the only native-born Spaniard on the veritable melting pot that is Spain's World Baseball Classic roster.
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But take a look around the room, Gonzalez says, or go back and watch the celebration that broke out when Spain stunned Team Israel in the qualifying round in September in Jupiter, Fla. What you'll see is a group of players equally excited to play for the country that technically only Gonzalez can call his first home.
"I'm very proud to do that -- at the same time, my 27 teammates are extremely proud to represent Spain as well," Gonzalez said on Tuesday, after Spain lost an exhibition to the Pirates, 10-0, at McKechnie Field. "When we won the tournament in Jupiter, nobody cared about if some of the guys were from the Dominican Republic or born here in the United States. Everybody was extremely happy and proud to represent Spain."
The other 27 players on Spain's roster are from elsewhere around North and South America, including several nations they'll face early on in the Classic. They're from Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, Cuba and the United States. Even manager Mauro Mazzotti is Italian.
They're connected to the country they'll represent in Pool C at Hiram Bithorn Stadium in Puerto Rico by their wives, parents, grandparents and so on. But they're also drawn together by something else, something they discovered as they upset Israel, the heavy favorite that more closely resembled a Minor League All-Star team than Spain's mix of players from the low Minors and independent and international leagues.
Their native countries didn't give them a chance to take part in what Mazzotti referred to as a "worldwide showcase," but Spain did. Spain gave these players an opportunity to further their careers, an opportunity they'll hope to make the best out of when they begin pool play in the Classic on Friday against Puerto Rico -- a game that will air at 5:30 p.m. ET (6:30 local time) on MLB Network and ESPN Deportes.
While Gonzalez is the only native Spaniard, they've all adopted his home country in a certain way.
"[Dominican outfielder] Engel Beltre and some other guys like [Cuban catcher Adrian] Nieto that never had anything to do with us before, they were the most excited after we qualified," Mazzotti said. "They were running with the Spanish flag around the field. You can say these guys have never been with us, but how cool is that?"
"I know that some of the guys were born in other countries, but we've been playing together for a long time," added Gonzalez. "We know each other, and we know that we have the same goal -- to represent our country in the best way possible. That's what we're planning on doing, and that's our expectation for the first round."
Team Spain was back on the field on Tuesday for the first time since its 9-7 victory over Israel in the qualifying round, and the Pirates handled Spain despite trotting out mostly Minor Leaguers. But this was merely a tune-up for Spain, which began working out as a team on Monday and will play another exhibition against the Orioles on Wednesday at 1:05 p.m. before heading to Puerto Rico.
The expectations won't be much higher when Team Spain arrives at Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan. They're set to face Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, an almost unfairly talented bracket full of Major League All-Stars and everyday big leaguers.
It was considered an upset when Spain beat Israel, of course; Mazzotti even admitted the result probably wouldn't have been the same in a five- or seven-game series. But winning just one game in Pool C, much less advancing to the next round in Miami, would be something else entirely.
"If I go into the clubhouse and say that we're going to win the whole thing, then they might think I'm crazy," Mazzotti said. "So we just say, 'Let's play humble and just play one game at a time, one inning at a time. Let's focus on scoring the first inning against Puerto Rico. Let's go step by step, little by little. You never know. Things can happen.'"
Indeed, this group already beat the odds once. And they're hopeful they can do it again this weekend, bringing something back to the nation whose team has given them a chance to take an international stage, no matter where they come from.
"The heart that we have on this team will take us far," said outfielder Daniel Figueroa, who's been playing with the Spanish National Team alongside his brother, Paco, since 2007. "We're obviously going to be going against some tough countries, but it's baseball. Anyone can win."