That’s not the way it was supposed to happen. We didn’t take them for granted. We knew they’d be playing for the pride of their nation and fans on top of a chance to play for a medal, and we knew they were a strong team. We had our ace on the hill and we were focused. Then three walks, one hit batter, seven(!) dinky singles, three(!) uncharacteristic errors, and a whole lot of “what just happened?” happened and we were down 8-0.
I can’t really explain it. I was watching it from right behind home plate, but i can’t explain it. We fell apart at the seams. This wasn’t the 16U National Team. Not the one I’ve known the past three weeks, at least. The previous 24 hours, all I could think about was taking care of business against Taipei, then taking care of business against whoever was next, and then getting the chance to play under the lights on Sunday night for a Gold Medal; and then for the first 3 innings all I could think about was how to apologize to my boss and coworkers for guiding a team that would now have the chance to be crowned fifth best in the world. That doesn’t happen. That can’t happen. The organization and so many other great people invest too much time, effort, and money for that to happen. I would have been sick for a long, long time.
I knew we were capable of a comeback, I just didn’t know how plausible it would be on this day. I certainly wasn’t giving up hope, but we weren’t us to start that game. Us had it in us to come back, but, again, we weren’t us.
But just as they’ve done all tournament long, JoJo and Cous sparked the fire. As Cous was rounding third after his bomb to center field to put us on the board at 8-2, I took a look over at the dugout and could tell that they believed. IBAF regulations require players to remain in the dugout following a homer, because otherwise the guys would have been circling the bases right along with him. Us was back.
From that point on, we righted the ship, chipped away with good at-bat after good at-bat driving the ball into the gaps, caught the ball in the field, and hopped on Cory’s back for the next 6 innings.
Cory was amazing. We knew we wanted to go with Ricky and Cory against them because Ricky would shove it and Cory would shut the door because they were afraid of him. We just didn’t think he’d have to shut the door on them while holding it open for us, but that’s exactly what he did.
This team is galvanized now. You don’t go through that and not become stronger. We were a “team” already. We enjoyed each other, trusted each other, supported each other, but now that bond is even tighter because we know we can do just about anything as a team together; all 27 of us pulling that rope in the same direction.
We’ve got a screening of “Miracle” after lunch, and then it’s back to work on a 3:30 pm bus to the yard. The comeback was amazing yesterday, but let’s leave that one for yesterday. Ideally, this one will go a little more like it’s supposed to and we’ll be where we should be on Sunday night.
This is going to be long. There are a whole lot of things that have happened in the last two weeks, and I tend to be verbose as it is, so bear with me — or don’t — but you have been forewarned.
It’s been over two weeks since we gathered in California for trials. Cal State Fullerton and the Urban Youth Academy were tremendous hosts. The facilities were great and the help and cooperation provided by their staffs were phenomenal. We were truly given everything we could have asked for to provide us with the best opportunity to select and train a gold-medal-winning National Team.
Some of the highlights of the week included a back yard barbecue the night that everyone got into town, a visit by 2000 Olympic Gold Medal Manager Tommy Lasorda, a trip to Dodger Stadium where we met with several USA Baseball alums, and a talent show which proved that off of the field, the group was mostly devoid of talent.
The barbecue was a great opportunity for the group to get together in a relaxed setting. Burgers and dogs were on the menu. Towards the end, everyone got up and told the group who their sports hero was (baseball or not baseball). The heroes ranged from Derek Jeter and Pete Rose to Muhammad Ali and Lance Armstrong. Later in the week, we gave every kid and coach a small, laminated photo of their hero to put inside their cap so that every time they put it on, they are reminded of that person and what they admire about them. That was an outstanding idea by Coach Sanchez.
Tommy’s visit and the Dodgers game made for a great Wednesday. Tommy gave a great speech as he is prone to do. I was fired up when he was done and I was ready to be in Taiwan for our game on August 23. He threatened to tell the millions of people he talks to next year how (EDIT) we were if we didn’t win the whole thing. I guess we’ll have to win it, then, if we want to keep our reputation.
Later that night we took a charter bus to Dodger Stadium for the Dodgers-Brewers game. Many thanks to the Dodgers’ PR/Ticket/Photo/Event staff for making it a great outing. We were let into the stadium early and took some seats behind the Dodger dugout on the third base side. 16U alum James Loney (2000 Pan Am Gold Medalist) came out and spoke to the guys first. He also donated an autographed bat for the winner of our talent show which was really great of him. The ever-animated Orlando Hudson (2001 World Cup) came up to talk to us next, and he was followed by Doug Mientkiewicz (1994 National Team and 2000 Olympic hero — see the 1:20 mark here for his walkoff to put the USA into the gold medal game). All of them talked about the special opportunity that everyone had in front of them and how much they appreciated their time with USA Baseball. It’s really nice when these guys take the time to connect with us 10 years later, and I’ll expect the same from some of our current 18 guys 10 years down the road when they are in the same shoes.
After those guys spoke, we were escorted down on the field behind homeplate to watch batting practice and we were visited by another USA alum in Brewers’ left fielder Ryan Braun (2009 WBC). He echoed the sentiments of the Dodgers and wished us luck. We stayed down there and were introduced to the crowd just before the anthem before heading up to the top deck to take in the game. It was an awesome night and a good chance for everyone to recharge their batteries before an important, final two days.
Towards the end of Trials, we held a talent show. Last year’s group really got into it and showed off some pretty good moves. This year’s group, not so much. In the end, Andrew Pullin, the coaching staff’s favorite, yet still a long shot, won the James Loney bat edging out Courtney Hawkins and his solo dance routine set to the tune of “Apache,” and C.J. Hinojosa’s impersonation of Trials coach Chad (Dad Gummit) Allen’s
Batting Target Practice. Although he was not eligible for the crown of “Mr. Trials,” Coach Padron’s impersonation of Francisco Lindor’s infield commands (Place at Waaaaaannnn) drew the most laughs.
As far as on-the-field action went, we had a great group of 36 kids. I would say it was the deepest group of trials players I have had during my six-year tenure at the helm of this program. Under the guidance of an outstanding group of hard-working Trials coaches, the games and workouts were well played so our staff got ample opportunity to evaluate and decide on the final 18. Those decisions were extremely tough — more so this year than in past years, it seems. There were certainly some kids left home who deserved to be on this team, but we could only take 18. It’s difficult to leave that kind of talent at home when you know they could help you out, but we did what we had to do and we picked our team.
Saturday was a busy day. The newly minted 16U National Team signed autographs for their Upper Deck cards, was issued equipment, participated in a photo shoot for those cards, had their first workout as a team, packed for Taiwan, and then headed for the airport. As far as 13-hour flights go, ours was a good one. We left Sunday morning (really, an extension of our Saturday, but technically Sunday), August 9 at 1:30 AM and arrived in Taipei on Monday morning, August 10 at 7:00 AM. In essence, we lost a whole day, about which I did not complain as it pertains to my budget. We were served two meals on the plane, the second being breakfast where our choices were french toast or porridge. Really, EVA Airlines breakfast chefs? Porridge? I had not heard of porridge since reading Goldilocks. In fact, I thought it was a fictitious meal. Needless to say, I enjoyed my french toast which wasn’t too hot or too cold, but just right, and then went back to sleep in my middle seat.
We were met at the airport by Stephen who has served as our interpreter for the entire trip. He’s been awesome and we’d certainly have a much more difficult time without him getting stuff done for us. We then bussed down to Taichung to prepare for the tournament with a few practice games. We came out pretty sluggish for our first game against the host nation Chinese Taipei. They beat us pretty good and the coaches let the players know that a similar effort would not be tolerated in the future. Fortunately to this point, they got the message and have heeded the warning. We came out completely different against Cuba the next day and beat them which is always nice, as well as shutting out Australia the next, next day to wrap up our exhibition slate with a 2-1 record.
Before things got going for real, we had a coaches’ press conference and opening ceremonies. Both were first class events as that’s how Taiwan does everything. The opening ceremonies even featured a visit by the President of Taiwan. He was subject to some heckling during his address to the crowd, and I was actually surprised he even chose to show up considering all of the devastation caused by the recent typhoon just a few hours south. He introduced himself and shook my hand and i thought it was the president of the Taiwanese Baseball Federation as opposed to the Taiwanese people in general. All in all, pretty cool.
It rained the first few days we were here, but fortunately for us, we were not in any danger of Typhoon Morakot. Further south, however, in more rural areas of Taiwan, the Typhoon did quite a bit of damage. In fact, there are still several thousand people stranded in their villages without aid. On Sunday, we took a collection from among the players, staff, and parents and raised over $500 US. Our security guy, Mike Snader, and I pledged $5 for every run we scored that day against the Czechs. 18 was pretty good and it drew $90 from each of our wallets for this good cause, but I was hoping for/scared of a 25+ run outburst like the day before. USA Baseball vowed to match anything up to $500, so we will be donating over $1000 to the relief effort which is really a nice thing. I am very proud of and thankful to everyone who contributed. It was really, very kind of you. Taiwan has been a great host to us (many times, not just this year) and it feels good to give back to them a little bit when they’re really in need. All of the stadiums have collection boxes at the gates, so hopefully over the course of the tournament they are able to generate some much needed funds.
We are loving our time here (winning helps). The hotel is very, very nice and the food has been great. Sure, everybody appreciates it when we get some “American” food from time to time, but there is plenty of good stuff to choose from every day. We eat buffet style with the other teams in our pool who are staying at our hotel, too. We don’t interact with them too much, but it’s still fun to have all of these teams from different places around. Yesterday, there was an international “laugh off” between us and the Dutch. C.J. was in the midst of one of his distinctive laugh attacks when a Dutch player mocked him from across the room. That sent our guys into more laughter which then caused the Dutch to crack up, too, and perpetuated C.J.’s laugh attack for about another minute or so. It was pretty funny to have the whole room laughing voraciously at once.
The stadiums are very nice, too. Intercontinental is only about 2 years old and it is certainly the nicer of the two, but both are pretty good. Intercontinental has nice locker rooms and indoor batting cages on top of being a physically impressive structure.
For those of you who can’t be with us here, if I could describe Taiwan in one word it would be “moped.” I am not talking about the past tense of feeling gloomy and dejected, but rather the transportation method of choice here in Taiwan. Holy cow, these things are everywhere. Imagine a lot of mopeds and then multiply that number by another number that is really high. That’s how many mopeds are driving around. I would call it controlled chaos but there is nothing controlled about it. People even put their toddlers on the front of these things and drive them on the street. It is crazy. I rode on the back of one for about 200 yards in a long driveway without any other cars around and we weren’t even going really fast and i was terrified. I can do without.
It is kind of hot here. The other day the temperature on the scoreboard at Taichung Stadium read 42 degrees Celsius.
When you convert that with a handy, internet conversion site, it tells you that it equates to ohmygodthatishot degrees Fahrenheit. And hot brought his friend humidity along, too. You sweat a little bit here. The parents are smarter than I am because they take refuge in the shade, but I like to sit behind homeplate so I was right there in the sun’s path yesterday and I got a bit damp. When I got home, I took off my belt and that was damp, and I wear my belt on the outside of my pants so that is some major soakage.
TV here is awesome. Most of the channels are Taiwanese and they show the best commercials ever. I have no idea what they are saying or advertising, but that makes them more entertaining. We get about 4 English movie channels and they show some great bad movies. The kind that didn’t even go straight to DVD, but rather straight to channel 68,
“Taiwan Hollywood.” If none of that suits you, the Yankees are always on some channel. Chien-Ming Wang has made Taiwan the sixth borough of New York City.
Walking around is interesting in itself. It’s a colorful city with a ton of cool signs on all of the businesses. Besides the occasional poorly translated sign in English (I saw a sign for “Giant Meal House” yesterday), I have no idea what they’re advertising, but they look really neat. About once or two times per block, you’ll walk through an invisible curtain of odor that can most curteously be described as interestingly distinctive. Within all of the 7-11’s exists a similar, interestingly distinctive odor. That comes from the Tea Eggs simmering in boiling water on the counter. Evidently 7-11 sells about 40 million of these things a year. I’ll take a slurpee, please.
So back to the team; we sit at 3-0 after taking care of business during our first three games, all of which were played against opponents who could best be described on a scale of underwhelming to bad. The bottom line, though, is we did what we needed to do. We’ve been throwing strikes, taking balls, and putting the pressure on our opponents, and that’s led to some success. If we keep doing things the way we can and turn up the intensity with every successive game, we’ll have a chance.
We get Mexico under the lights tonight. We’ll forever owe them for knocking us out of the Olympics in 2004, so it’s always a good time to pay them back ten runs at a time, and that’s what I expect to happen. Tomorrow we get Korea who should be our stiffest competition in pool play, and then it’s an off day with the parents followed by the quarters, semis, and finals. Our coaches have been working hard scouting our potential opponents whenever we’re not playing. I think we’re ready to take this thing home over the next five games. We’ve come too far not to, and I really want to eat some gold medal porridge on the flight back.