TAMPA, Fla. — Like every other major league team, the Yankees grumbled privately — and sometimes publicly — about the World Baseball Classic.
It happens every four years. It will happen again in 2021, when the WBC returns and strips key players from spring training rosters. And some of those players will be injured while playing for their countries, as Yankees shortstop Didi Gregorius was this time around.
Gregorius, who will miss at least the first month of the season with a shoulder muscle strain, returned to the Yankees this past week, as did Dellin Betances and Tyler Clippard.
The WBC was met with a collective yawn by a large segment of American sports fans, even though the U.S. won its first title. But the players had the time of their lives and would do it again, even knowing the risks to themselves and their MLB teams.
“If I’m allowed to go, then I’ll go,” said Gregorius, who was injured while playing second base in a WBC exhibition game for the semifinalist Netherlands team. “It was a really good experience just playing with the guys that I played with since we were like 6 years old, to see how far all of us have come and to play on the same team. Cheering each other, helping each other out, even in practice and all the stuff. Giving each other hints about the game. It was a really nice experience for me.”
Yankees manager Joe Girardi questioned whether Gregorius was hurt because he was playing out of position. General manager Brian Cashman said the WBC people weren’t going to give Gregorius an MRI when he was injured on March 18 until the Yankees insisted. Not having their players under their medical control is another issue teams have, and will have, with the WBC.
But Gregorius denied that playing out of position or ramping up his training because of the WBC led to his injury. “It could have happened anywhere,” he said. “So it’s not like, ‘Oh, because I went to WBC, it happened.’ It’s not because of that.”
At least the Yankees got two vital bullpen pieces back without incident. Betances, who pitched for the Dominican Republic, and Clippard, who won a gold medal with the U.S., gushed about participating in the event.
“Man, I’m not going to lie,” Betances said. “I thought it was more than I expected. Miami was intense. The crowd was definitely on our side in Miami. Very intense crowd, from the first inning to the ninth, and San Diego was fun as well. We came up short, but I thought it was overall a fun experience.”
Betances chose to play for the Dominican over the United State. It’s a decision he does not regret.
“The love I got from the Dominican fans was unbelievable,” Betances said. “I didn’t think it would be like that, but I think a lot of the Dominican fans were just happy that I chose to play for them. For me, you come at the beginning, a group full of stars, and you have one common goal. You’re there for a short period of time, but you develop certain relationships. You’re playing to win the whole thing. And just the fan experience. I don’t think I’ve played in a ballgame like the Miami games vs. the U.S. All those games in Miami I thought were pretty insane. I felt like I was in Little League. I had so much fun.”
Clippard, who was part of the Mets team that went to the World Series in 2015, called the WBC “one of the coolest things I’ve done in my career, for sure. To be able to put on the USA jersey for two weeks straight and experience the camaraderie of some of the best players in America and take it home and win the gold and the whole thing, it was a fun ride.”
Clippard was on the mound for one of the WBC’s signature moments, when Adam Jones leaped over the centerfield wall to rob Orioles teammate Manny Machado of a home run in the United States’ 6-3 win over the Dominican Republic.
“It’s like he was doing a major trick, from my perspective,” Clippard said. “It looked like he pulled the ball out of the crowd, and the next thing I know, it’s in his glove.”
After the U.S. won the title with an 8-0 victory over Puerto Rico on Wednesday night, Clippard headed back to Tampa to rejoin the Yankees.
“I think it was kind of perfect,” he said. “It peaked, we won it, the bubble popped and I’m here and back ready to go. There was nothing left to do. We won the thing, and I’m excited to get back in this clubhouse and get back to reality and focus on the New York Yankees.”
Oh, right, the Yankees. Cashman’s only focus is on the Yankees. But in a long soliloquy last week, even he had to admit the WBC is here to stay, like it or not.
“There seem to be some serious, exciting games,” he said. “A lot of our fans — the fans of baseball — are certainly locked in on it . . . There’s certainly a lot of buzz about it, and it’s all positive. The event’s playing out and it’s improving on an every-four-year basis. You couldn’t ask for any better games that are playing out in the month of March.
“Injuries are a part of baseball. That’s the bottom line. I’m not going to speak to anything like that. The WBC is a joint effort between Major League Baseball and the Players Association, and they’ve been building on it over the years and it seems to be getting bigger and better, but as a consequence of any competition, there’s risk. That risk was understandable when the powers that be of all parties, whether you’re a player, whether you’re an individual club, whether you’re an owner, whether you’re the Players Association, commissioner’s office, that was all vetted, and still a green light was made to go forward. Injuries happen any time you compete, and the best organizations deal with it, and hopefully we’ll deal with this well. That’s all I can say.”