Classic gains: Players aim to benefit from tourney
Those returning to Majors camps could take advantage of time on international stage
SAN FRANCISCO -- Mike Aviles walked down the dugout steps amid a sea of red-topped teammates and down into the tunnel behind the visitors' dugout at AT&T Park, his Puerto Rico jersey untucked but still worn proudly, a silver medal with a multicolored ribbon around his neck.
He had just changed teams twice this offseason, traded from the Red Sox to the Blue Jays, then dealt to the Indians two weeks later. Being in Spring Training, under normal circumstances, would be an invaluable opportunity for Aviles to get accustomed to a new environment and new teammates.
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But what Aviles had just experienced over the past few weeks, well, simply couldn't be duplicated in Arizona or Florida. What he gained as an everyday player for Team Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic was playoff-like intensity in March, and a lesson in sharp focus and teamwork that Aviles said he'll carry with him to Goodyear, Ariz., when he rejoins the Tribe.
"That little bit of experience will help me be a better player and a better teammate in the long run for the season," Aviles said moments after Puerto Rico had fallen to the Dominican Republic in the title game of the 2013 Classic.
Aviles and many others like him competed at a high level in the intense tournament, representing the name on the front of his jersey. For Aviles, that's bound to be of benefit as he heads back to his full-time job with the Tribe.
"You think about it: This time of year at Spring Training, you're really taking meaningless at-bats, and by that I mean pitchers are getting their arms in shape and hitters are basically just trying to get their timing down and get their swing down," said Aviles, 32. "Then to come in here, and you're taking at-bats where everybody in the world is watching -- not just in the States, but everybody in the world is watching. They're taking note."
It was that kind of atmosphere that pervaded the World Baseball Classic, from its earlier rounds in the U.S., Asia and the Caribbean through to the championship round in San Francisco.
Just among the finalists, there were many who seemed to thrive on the atmosphere and, in a sense, might have gotten a jump on their Major League teammates in the game-readiness department. The relief crew of Fernando Rodney, Pedro Strop and Santiago Casilla -- which combined for a 0.00 ERA in 19 innings pitched -- probably got a little momentum going for the regular season. And Robinson Cano certainly looked like a different player under the spotlight in March than he did in October.
On the subject of October, Angel Pagan went from a World Series championship team to a national squad that played in the World Baseball Classic championship game at his big league club's home park, and he now goes back to the Giants with the fever to get after defending the title he won. Talk about a wild ride for the man they call Crazy Horse.
"I got a lot from this, even though I had to pull the trigger a little soon. I feel ready to go, and that's a good thing," said Pagan, who batted a team-high .364 for Puerto Rico. "First of all, I got ready to play this Classic, to help Puerto Rico go as far as we could. Second of all, we're the defending [World Series] champions and I prepared myself the best way possible to help bring it back. I feel good, I feel ready to go, and hopefully we can bring it back."
A couple of Pagan's teammates went back to Giants camp similarly energized, despite falling short of reaching the championship round. Ryan Vogelsong and Jeremy Affeldt of Team USA couldn't have been more pleased with the experience, other than the final result, of course.
"I think I would have had a much tougher time going into [the Classic] without being through the postseason last year," Vogelsong said. "It was that kind of atmosphere and intensity."
Said Affeldt: "I felt the pressure, at this point of the season, was like playoff-atmosphere pressure."
Of course, there are no guarantees a sharp Classic will translate into instant success for one's club. Michael Saunders' .727 average for Canada was followed by a slump when he returned to Cactus League action with the Mariners, although the experience of winning MVP of a pool figures to win out in the long run. Young players like Andrelton Simmons of the Braves and the Kingdom of the Netherlands as well as journeymen like Samuel Deduno of the Twins and the Dominican Republic had performances that, like Saunders' for Canada, are a base of experience not available at Spring Training. Deduno, a late addition to the D.R. squad and only a Minor League invite to Twins camp, was the winning pitcher in the finale.
And how about the pair of players from the Kingdom of the Netherlands who turned the Dutch's latest remarkable run into an opportunity for the regular season? First baseman Curt Smith (Dodgers) and catcher Daschenko Ricardo (Twins) were signed to Minor League deals during the tournament. While we're in with the Dutch, how about Hensley Meulens, the Giants' hitting coach, providing some food for thought about a Major League managerial future?
Around the teams that participated in the 18-day baseball fest, there were many, like Aviles, who knew this was a can't-miss opportunity, one that will benefit them in the long run.
In his second Classic with Puerto Rico, Aviles was that club's starting shortstop in both championship-round games, and he had a brilliant run at the plate, with 10 hits (.323), four runs and nine RBIs, which were six more than any other team member.
Once Aviles had the opportunity, he jumped at it. Once it got going, like so many others, he ran with it. And now he's ready to get back to work at his Major League team's camp. He'll be battling for playing time in the Indians' infield, but he left for the World Baseball Classic with new manager Terry Francona sending him off with some encouraging words.
"Tito was awesome about it. He just said, 'Go out there and have fun. I would do it if I was you,' " Aviles said. "To have that kind of backing from my organization, and then to see what we were able to pull off here, it means a lot to me as a player."
John Schlegel is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.