It’s almost Classic time! I wrote a little bit last week about why we should start getting excited for the World Baseball Classic, which begins on March 8th. Nestor Cortes’ recent withdrawal leaves Kyle Higashioka, Gleyber Torres, and Jonathan Loáisiga as the only current Yankees major leaguers suiting up for their country this spring, which would be the second-smallest NYY cohort in the tournament’s five iterations. With that in mind, I thought it would be fun exercise to look back on Yankees representation in previous editions of the tournament, beginning with a 2006 Classic whose six Yankees players remains an all-time high.
The USA went out with a dud in the inaugural Classic, advancing to the second round but seeing their tournament end after losses to South Korea and Mexico. It wasn’t for the efforts of the two superstar Yankees on the roster, though. Even though Derek Jeter was more or less the face of a USA team that folded in quite underwhelming fashion, the Captain played his part well, going 9-for-20 (.450 AVG) while also drawing three walks. His hit and average totals were second on the team only to Ken Griffey Jr.
Box scores and play-by-plays from the first two editions of the WBC are weirdly hard to find, so there’s only so much we can infer about whether any of his nine hits were somehow iconic (his lone RBI only served to make an soon-to-be 17-0 blowout of South Africa 11-0 rather than 10-0, so that was inconsequential). The same can’t be said for Alex Rodriguez, who suited up for Team USA in the initial WBC.
A-Rod ran a more pedestrian 7-for-21 line with a team-leading seven strikeouts, but was also responsible for the USA’s only win in the second round of play. He walked off eventual champion Japan with a ninth-inning single that was overshadowed by a controversial eighth-inning play in which it was determined in somewhat sketchy fashion that future Twin Tsuyoshi Nishioka had tagged up from third base too early in scoring what was at the time the go-ahead run.
The 2006 World Baseball Classic actually has a whole separate “Controversies” page on Wikipedia. This tournament is so much more fun than it gets credit for. Just sayin’!
In other Yankees/USA tidbits, Johnny Damon also made a few largely unproductive appearances as he approached his second year in pinstripes — he and Jeter were responsible for the only two triples recorded by Team USA during the tournament. Jeter was the sole Yankee named to the competition’s All-Tournament Team.
Like I said, stats and box scores are surprisingly hard to come by. The only reason I have those stats there is because the USA National Team maintains stats for every international competition they’ve participated in since. Several other Yankees players played prominent roles in 2006, however. There was Bobby Abreu, who despite hitting .150 was among the WBC leaders in two of the three true outcomes with six walks and seven punchouts in six games. Although other stats are as-yet lost to time, there’s little doubt Abreu was a focal point of a Venezuelan lineup — managed by Yankees third base coach Luis Sojo — that made it through to the second round but lost both games there.
Bernie Williams played for his native Puerto Rico, and even at age-37, he hit .250 with a pair of homers for another solid club that made the second round. Check out this mammoth shot that he hit against WBC runner-up Cuba:
Al Leiter’s big league career ended with 16 appearances (10 starts) of 5.49 ERA pitching for the 2005 Yankees, but he was invited to spring training the following year as a non-roster invitee — with the idea that he was also prepping for this WBC. Now, dear reader, you will know that Leiter’s career actually ended with one run allowed and one out recorded for the good ol’ Stars and Stripes. Once the Classic was all said and done, he officially retired.
Lots of cool stuff in 2006! Check back in on Friday to see what a new cohort of stars in pinstripes brought to the table three years later in 2009.