ST. PETERSBURG — As manager of the Dominican Republic team for the World Baseball Classic, Rodney Linares wasn’t leaving anything to chance.
The Marlins had arranged their rotation for Cy Young Award winner Sandy Alcantara to travel cross-state to pitch in Monday’s exhibition at Tropicana Field before joining the Dominican training camp in Fort Myers.
Linares, the Rays’ bench coach, was going to personally ensure his top starter arrived safely.
“I’m driving him,” Linares said. “I want to make sure he gets there.”
As with the 12 Rays players and nine other staff members involved, there is a special meaning and sense of pride for Linares to participate in the international baseball tournament that starts this week.
But also an extreme amount of pressure.
Gifted with a lineup of some of the game’s biggest stars — Rafael Devers, Manny Machado, Julio Rodriguez, Juan Soto, plus the Rays’ Wander Franco and Francisco Mejia — Linares also is burdened with the expectation of millions of Dominicans to win.
“It’s all good when everybody says you’re the favorite,” Linares said. “I don’t look at it that way. I look at it that we have a really competitive, really talented group of guys that are going to be there. A lot of young guys that are superstars in the big leagues right now. It’s a different atmosphere. But we don’t visualize anybody being a lesser opponent; we think of everybody the same way.”
Rays manager Kevin Cash saw how intense the assignment is, as he and several coaches shared a house during the two-week training camp at Disney. Linares was on multiple phone and Zoom calls nightly.
“Hell yeah, there’s pressure,” Cash said. “That’s a very motivated fan base, a very motivated country. I know he’s feeling it.”
The Dominicans begin pool play Saturday in Miami, where over five days they will face Venezuela, Nicaragua, Israel and Puerto Rico. The top two teams from each of the four pools advance, with single-elimination play in the North American quarterfinals (March 17-18) and semifinals (March 19-20) leading to the championship game (March 21), all of which are in Miami.
“I’m just going to enjoy it,” Linares said. “I’m going to enjoy the moment. I’m going to enjoy my time doing it. Hopefully, we’re victorious. That’s the plan. The plan is to win. We’ve taken the approach of win it all or nothing. That’s pretty cool the guys are thinking that way. I just want them to enjoy it. It’s gonna be great.”
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Linares, whose father, Julio, has had a long and respected career in the game, said he considers the assignment “a privilege and an honor.” He has been receiving plenty of unsolicited advice on how best to manage the team.
“I get it from everywhere,” he said. “Not only here (from his Rays colleagues), but also my family, my friends, people that I know. I get messages every day. I’ve probably gotten 200-300 lineups from people, either on social media platforms or texts. I get random texts from people just telling me, ‘You better hit this guy first, hit Soto first, hit Rodriguez first.’ But it’s all fun.”
Here is a look at some other Rays participating in the tournament.
OF/1B/DH Harold Ramirez
Ramirez, 28, is appreciative of another opportunity after missing out in 2017 due to a knee injury. “I’m very excited, because it’s my first time there,” he said. “My family can’t wait. They’re all going to be in Arizona with me.”
INF Wander Franco, C Francisco Mejia, process/analytics coach Jonathan Erlichman
Franco, 22, is excited to get to play alongside his country’s best. He said having Linares as his manager will make the experience even better.
“It’s a good opportunity,” he said via team communications manager Elvis Martinez. “It gives me more confidence that (Linares) is gonna be managing the team, because I know him and so it’s gonna feel more comfortable.”
But what if Linares opts to play one of his other talented shortstops, ex-Ray Willy Adames or World Series MVP Jeremy Pena?
“If I’m in the lineup, great,” Franco said. “If not, then everybody’s going to do their job, and the important thing is to win.”
Mejia, who may get the bulk of the time behind the plate as the better defensive option over free agent Gary Sanchez, also is excited to play for Linares. “I think there’s a lot of pressure,” he said via Martinez,” but I think it’s gonna be OK.”
Erlichman, whose “J-Money” nickname has been changed to “Juan Dinero” for the Classic (with Linares-ordered T-shirts to show it), was invited by Linares to provide strategic advice, much as he does for Cash.
OF Randy Arozarena, INFs Jonathan Aranda and Isaac Paredes
For natives Aranda and Paredes, neither of whom is yet established in the majors, the chance to play for Mexico is extremely special.
“There’s a lot of pride just to represent my country, to have those letters across by chest,” Parades said via Martinez. “I think it’s going to be one of the best Mexican teams we have assembled.”
Added Aranda, 24, via interpreter Manny Navarro, “I’m very, very happy to have this experience. This is a great feeling for me to be able to represent my colors in the Classic. It’s the first time I’ll be on any kind of national team.”
Arozarena made the choice to play for Mexico, where he established residency after fleeing his native Cuba in 2015. Big-leaguers were eligible to play for Cuba this year, but Arozarena said he had no interest.
“What excites me the most is that I’m able to represent the country of Mexico,” he said via Navarro. “As a kid, I always wanted to represent my country. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to do that. But I’m able to represent Mexico.”
Arozarena also is eager to face his Rays teammates on such a big stage. He is hoping Mexico advances to face the Dominicans, though he is a bit concerned Linares knows all his tricks. “I think I have to come up with some other magic,” he said.
Paredes, who has gotten encouraging messages from former Ray and WBC veteran Jorge Cantu (who also played for Mexico), is intrigued by how it all plays out.
“Everybody wants to represent their country really well,” Paredes said. “Let’s see who wins, and when we all come back here (to resume) camp for this year’s team, we’re all gonna make fun of each other and stuff like that.”
C Christian Bethancourt
At 31, Bethancourt felt thrilled about what could be his only chance to represent Panama in an event that is scheduled just once every four years. And one other thing: “Mine has a little special meaning as it comes after my grandpa passed away this past Jan. 2,” he said. Bethancourt switched his number from 27 (his mom’s birthday) to 22 to acknowledge Faustino’s birthday.
RP Jason Adam
Being chosen for the U.S. team was another unexpected twist after Adam’s breakthrough 2022 season, and his pride in wearing the red, white and blue will be obvious. “No country is perfect, obviously, but I’m really thankful for where I grew up,” he said. As much clubhouse banter as there has been about Arozarena taking him deep and Mejia knowing his repertoire, Adam is most thrilled about “just getting to rub shoulders” with some of the game’s best. Plus, he has questions for some of his new teammates, such as Mike Trout and the events of Aug. 24, 2022: “I want to ask him how he hit my 2-0 slider off the second deck.”
Other Rays playing
Minor-league pitcher Trevor Brigden is suiting up for his native Canada, and three others for countries to which they had familial ties: Andrew Gross (Israel), Joe LaSorsa (Italy), Graham Spraker (Great Britain).
Other Rays staff participating
Australia: Will Bradley, hitting coach; Dominican Republic: Wilson Diez, physical therapist; Israel: Brad Epstein, athletic trainer; Simon Rosenbaum, coaching support; Italy: Blake Butera, co-manager; Thomas Culkin, clubhouse manager; Pat Phelan, clubhouse staff; Nicaragua: Ruben Santiago, athletic trainer. Also, Tropicana Field official scorer Bill Mathews will work the Miami games.
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