For the United States, the journey to the semifinal round of the inaugural Premier 12 began in August.
That was when the committee in charge of putting together the U.S. roster sat down to figure out what the U.S. presence in Japan and Taiwan would look like. Major League Baseball had barred its players from participating, and winter ball and family commitments crossed more names off the U.S. wish list.
Despite the challenges, USA Baseball general manager Eric Campbell, who has been with the organization for eight years, and other decision-makers managed to put together a team that can reach the Premier 12 final with a victory over Mexico in the semifinals on Friday at Tokyo Dome.
“We’re excited,” Campbell said after the U.S. team’s practice on Thursday at the Big Egg. “It’s a great statement about how deep baseball is in the United States. Our pool is extremely deep. Our players are extremely passionate when they get to wear this uniform.”
The U.S. team went 3-2 during the preliminary round, finishing two games behind Japan, which won Group B with a 5-0 record, and with the same record as South Korea in the same group. Mexico, which also played in Group B during the opening round, was 2-3.
Matt McBride, an outfielder for the Albuquerque Isotopes, Triple-A affiliate of the Colorado Rockies, has led the way for the Americans with a tournament-best .563 batting average, one home run and five RBIs. Brett Eibner an outfielder from the Triple-A Omaha Storm Chasers (Kansas City Royals) had a team-high seven RBIs during the first five games.
“We’re very, very happy with the team we have,” Campbell said. “At the end of the day, no matter what your challenges are, you end up with 27 great guys. They’re a great group, and I think they’re representing the USA really, really well.”
Putting this roster together wasn’t easy for the Americans. The timing of the event posed a particular challenge because many MLB clubs send prospects to participate in the Arizona Fall League, which runs from Oct. 13 to Nov. 21 (the Premier 12 is from Nov. 8-21), and other winter leagues. Other players, young and old, not on MLB rosters may also travel to Latin America and play in winter leagues there as well.
“The timing of this was conducive to the ending of the KBO (Korea Baseball Organization), the league in Taiwan and the league here in Japan,” Campbell said. “So (for) three of the 12 countries, the timing of the event (is kind) of geared for them. Obviously they’re hosting, so it makes sense.
“But for the teams that are getting their players from affiliated teams, there’s also the Arizona Fall League. So if there could’ve been even a little bit more coordination with us, if this event could’ve started two weeks later, we would’ve had better coordination with the Arizona Fall League. Who knows, we may have gotten a couple more players.”
The U.S. team didn’t begin talking to potential players until September. By that time, there were a lot of players unable to participate due to contractual obligations or family matters.
“We would like to talk to players earlier than we did,” Campbell said. “That’s no one’s fault per se. It’s just the fact that this was the first event, and we gotta iron a few things out.”
So far, the U.S. team has overcome the challenges. Campbell and co. put together a team they’re happy with, and one that’s among the last four standing. The experience has also given the Americans a road map to build upon.
“The (MLB) clubs are very, very cooperative with us,” Campbell said.
Minor leaguers needed permission from their parent club to participate.
“If the agreement could’ve been done last January, then we could’ve worked with players who have winter ball contracts to reorganize their dates,” Campbell said. “As it was, because we didn’t start talking to players until September, players already had winter ball contract dates, start dates, finish dates. So they couldn’t change their contracts.
“If we coordinate more with the ending of the Arizona Fall League, it would help Canada, USA, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, the Dominicans, Mexico. It would help all of us if this could happen when the Arizona Fall League ended. Not just USA, but everyone in the Americas.”
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