ST. PETERSBURG — Because there are no bullpens on the field or beyond the outfield walls at Taiwan’s Taichung Stadium, Rays catcher Christian Bethancourt missed the pageantry of Panama’s World Baseball Classic opener as he warmed up the starting pitcher in a batting cage under the stands.
But he was still able to hear the first few notes of “Himno Istmeño,” the Panamanian anthem. Then he had to pause for a moment.
“I cried for a little bit,” Bethancourt said. “I got really emotional. And it felt great."
Bethancourt isn’t the only Ray to return from the WBC glowing about the experience.
The smile on Wander Franco’s face Saturday morning in recounting his time with the Dominican Republic team was just as telling.
“It was definitely a dream come true for any Dominican player to be able to represent the country," he said, via team interpreter Manny Navarro.
“I can’t explain it," added Harold Ramirez, who played for Colombia.
Those feelings, and the memories, signed balls and jerseys the players brought home should serve as a rebuttal for those criticizing the WBC concept following the season-ending right knee injury sustained by Mets closer Edwin Diaz as he celebrated Puerto Rico’s win.
“It sucks that he got hurt,” Bethancourt said. “But I wouldn’t personally blame it on the WBC. That could have happened anywhere."
While the WBC may not be popular among fans in the United States — especially while being played at the same time as the NCAA basketball tournaments — participating Rays players said it’s important to realize how much it means elsewhere.
“I kind of agree with that. It’s not a knock on anybody, but especially where we come from, our countries in Latin America, baseball is the main sport,” Francisco Mejia, who caught for the Dominican team, said via team communications manager Elvis Martinez.
“In the United States, you probably have multiple sports or other things to root for. It’s an honor to wear your country’s jersey and represent your country and your family and friends. And that’s the way we see it."
Or, as Bethancourt framed it: “We’re representing our country and we also are representing our families, our roots. For soccer they have the FIFA World Cup; we have the WBC.”
The risk of injury to players is obviously the biggest concern for teams, who place restrictions on usage, especially for pitchers. But those same injuries can occur during spring training workouts and games.
“I don’t think that’s fair to necessarily pin it on the WBC," Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “I certainly understand organizations wanting to protect their guys for the championship season, but you look at the atmosphere of some of these games, they mean a lot to these players. There’s nothing wrong with getting that type of excitement involved in our game."
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Outfielder Randy Arozarena, who has played a starring role as Mexico advanced to the semifinals, has personified that.
And he emphasized the significance of the games when he said his game-saving catch in Friday’s quarterfinal was bigger than any home run he has hit, including in the 2020 World Series.
Mexico manager Benji Gil went further, saying it “has to be the most important play in the history of Mexican sports.”
Other participating Rays said it is hard explain how much it all meant, from being teammates with some of their country’s elite players to proudly wearing the colors.
Mejia said he couldn’t imagine any postseason atmosphere surpassing what they experienced Wednesday in the win-or-go-home game they lost to Puerto Rico.
“I don’t think I’m ever going to feel nervous again," he said. “It doesn’t matter the stage. I think my ears are still ringing from all the noise in the crowd. … It’s like you’re playing in a concert or something."
The Rays can’t yet announce Shane McClanahan as their opening day starter, nor can other teams name theirs, due to a league-wide mandate to withhold the news for an MLB Network special on Thursday. … With Neil Solondz promoted to join Andy Freed in the radio booth following the March 5 passing of Dave Wills, the team will next be looking to fill the pre-/post-game host role. … Best wishes to former Rays communications managers Karly Fisher, who moved to player development in a travel/logistics role, and Craig Vanderkam, who joined Major League Baseball’s data operations department. … Prospect Junior Caminero, a 19-year-old infielder called up for Thursday’s game at Tropicana Field, put on a show in batting practice that had big-leaguers stopping to watch. ... Despite his best efforts to get Cash to pay, ex-Ray Ji-Man Choi picked up the tab for a Friday night dinner with assistant hitting coach Brady North. … In a Crestline survey of 1,000 baseball fans nationwide, Rays backers were named eighth least annoying and 13th best-behaved. ... A limited number of copies of the Rays media guide, with a cool 25th anniversary cover, will be available in mid-April at the team store. ... Sports Illustrated’s Stephanie Apstein reported on something the Rays (and most other teams) do for their players that the mighty Yankees don’t: provide Internet access on team flights for free. ... The new checkout-free, grab-and-go concession area on the centerfield porch will be called The Shortstop. … In addition to upgrading the Tropicana Field main and side video boards, there is also a new graphics package. … Betonline.ag gives the Rays a 63 percent chance to make the playoffs, third best in the American League East, fourth in the league, 10th in the majors. … The Yankees are planning renovations to their Tampa spring facility. Owner Hal Steinbrenner said they were concerned to be “falling behind a lot of other teams that have newer facilities,” citing the Blue Jays’ state-of-the-art complex in Dunedin, and adding: “I’m not one that ever wants to be secondary.”
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