'It was sick': Team USA in awe watching WBC coach Ken Griffey Jr's home run

MIAMI — Practice was over, the day was done Friday, but the players on Team USA immediately gathered around the batting cage, trying to see the greatest show of  this World Baseball Classic.

It was USA coaches Ken Griffey Jr. and Brian McCann playing spontaneous home run derby.

“We knew something was up when we saw Griffey bringing his own bat on the team bus,’’ Los Angeles Angels All-Star Mike Trout said. “We were hoping. We were begging. And then he did it.’’

Griffey, borrowing Trout’s batting gloves, played a single round of home-run derby, and on the last swing, his 10th, hit into the right-field seats at loanDepot Park.

The players went nuts, screaming and high-fiving Griffey as the Hall of Famer broke into his trademark smile.

It was a thrill of a lifetime, the players said, with many watching Griffey swing for the first time in person.

“It was sick,’’ Trout told USA TODAY Sports. “Nothing like it.’’

Players have been begging Griffey to take a round of batting practice all tournament, and it wasn’t until Friday that he finally conceded.

“Guys were putting a lot of pressure on him,’’ Trout said. “We wanted to see it so bad. He said, “Give me 10 swings, and I know I can hit one out."

"You still got it!" someone yelled as Griffey headed to the clubhouse.

“I don’t know what I got,’’ Griffey said, laughing. "But I got something. I need three weeks off now.’’

Ken Griffey Jr. won the 1998 Home Run Derby at Coors Field.
Ken Griffey Jr. won the 1998 Home Run Derby at Coors Field.

In defense of the WBC

Players participating in the WBC are disappointed by the criticism of the tournament in light of Mets closer Edwin Diaz’s injury, with USA starter Lance Lynn becoming latest on Friday to speak out.

If folks are going to blame the WBC for Diaz’s injury, they say, then why not blame spring training for Dodgers shortstop Gavin Lux’s season-ending injury, and shut that down, too.

“Edwin's an amazing player and it's a big loss for the Mets,’’ Lynn said, “but when you look at what this is all about and all that, I don't think he would tell you that he regrets being a part of this. We like to compete, we like to compete for our countries, people that we care about and things like that.

“You never want to get hurt. People get hurt in spring training games every day right now, and no one says we shouldn't have spring training. So that's the unfortunate part of the game, people will get hurt, but the beauty of the game is to see the fans, see the passion that players have this time of year, especially in these events. That's why you play the game.

“So, telling guys not to play the game they love for the country they love is tough because you can get hurt walking down the street, to be honest. It's unfortunate, but I think that you see the bigger picture of this, people playing for their countries and having a great time.’’

Edin Diaz after suffering a knee injury celebrating Puerto Rico's win on Wednesday.
Edin Diaz after suffering a knee injury celebrating Puerto Rico's win on Wednesday.

Scheduling controversy

Other teams are frustrated that FOX dictated that it wanted Team USA to play on Saturday night instead of Friday, moving its game against Venezuela to Saturday while Puerto Rico and Mexico play Friday night.

Mexico, by winning the WBC Pool C over USA, should have had the extra off-day instead of the Americans.

The extra day also allowed USA manager Mark DeRosa to select Lance Lynn to pitch on regular rest, bypassing Adam Wainwright or Nick Martinez. Lynn, who was brilliant in five innings against Canada on Monday, also has no pitch restrictions by the Chicago White Sox. He is able to throw 80 pitches, the maximum permitted by all WBC pitchers in the second round.

The WBC is popular!

There were a record 1,010,999 fans who attended the first round of the WBC, nearly doubling the previous record of 510,056 in 2017, averaging 25,275 per game. The games in Japan averaged a record 36,198 fans a game.

The TV viewing audience in Japan also set records, averaging a Super Bowl-sized 42.3 TV rating, while the rating in Puerto Rico was 62% in their victory against the Dominican Republic to advance to the quarterfinals.

Venezuela fans during a game against Nicaragua in Miami.
Venezuela fans during a game against Nicaragua in Miami.

Let's get loud

There are more than 100,000 Venezuelans who live in the Miami area, and they will certainly have a decided home-field advantage against Team USA in an environment many of the U.S. players have never experienced.

“It’s going to be crazy,’’ DeRosa said. “It's going to be like Caracas-Magallanes on steroids. So I'm fired up for it.’’

DeRosa, who played winter ball in Venezuela loves the passion of the country and will never forget his experience playing there in 1999.

“I played for Caracas,’’ DeRosa said, “and spent two months there, and loved every second of it. I can remember the hotel and traveling to all those places and I thought it helped me immensely, not only get ready, but keep going and progressing towards the big leagues.

“I also understand the Latin American ballplayers' journey over to the U.S. It opened my eyes to that. So, I was understanding of them coming over and the struggles that they dealt with at a young age because I know I dealt with it over there, kind of communication, eating. And those guys took care of me, the Bobby Abreus of the world, really took me under their wing, and Alex Gonzalez made me feel welcome over there. So I was appreciative.’’

Pitching restrictions

WBC managers are restricted with the use of their pitchers in the tournament, trying to abide by the wishes of their major league clubs, but it shouldn’t dilute the beauty of the WBC, DeRosa said.

“I think certainly there are handcuffs on what you're able to do game to game,’’ DeRosa said. “But that was the commitment we made to the players on the roster, that was the commitment we made to the parent clubs. So, yes, it's much more difficult.

"But I'm not going to jeopardize anybody's career or [MLB executive] Tony Reagins' relationships with these GMs, my relationships with the managers and coaches too. I just won't do it. So it just takes a lot of thought and I have great coaches to lean on and we've kind of hammered it out. You almost got to lightly script what you're going to do.’’

Finally some familiarity

Now that Team USA is out of Pool C, the Americans will be more prepared to face an opposing pitcher, with 11-year veteran Martin Perez set to start for Venezuela on Saturday.

“I do feel like with regards to Great Britain and with regards to Colombia,’’ DeRosa said, “there was some unknown facing the pitching. Just listening to the hitters trying to formulate a game plan and what's this guy got and watching him warm up. I think that changes with a guy like Martin Perez on the mound. There's a lot of guys that have seen him in the Big Leagues.

“And on the flip side, there's probably a ton of guys in that Venezuela lineup that have seen Lance [Lynn]. So I do feel that familiarity breeds almost a little bit more relaxation within the team."

Venezuela's star power

Team USA will be facing some of the biggest stars in the game in Venezuela, including Jose Altuve and Ronald Acuña Jr.

“A ton of respect for those guys,’’ DeRosa said. “Altuve's one of the most amazing hitters I've ever seen in my life. Ronald, I've lived in Atlanta for the last 25 years, he's one of the biggest superstars that has ever come through that organization. He’s one of my kids' favorite players. [Luis] Arraez is a batting champ, it's going to be his home ballpark this year. So a ton of respect for all those guys over there, honestly.’’

Mike Trout hit .417 with a home run and six RBI in the first four games.
Mike Trout hit .417 with a home run and six RBI in the first four games.

Team USA's MVPs

The 1-2 punch of Mookie Betts and Mike Trout has been a manager’s dream atop the USA lineup, leaving DeRosa in awe.

“Mookie's good at everything,’’ DeRosa said. “ I mean, I watch him take ground balls at shortstop I think, I honestly think he could play pretty much anywhere on the diamond he wanted to play and be one of the best at it.’’

And Trout?

“Mike will go down as one of the greatest players of all time,’’ DeRosa said. “I don't know what it is, but he's just different. Even in that room, amongst those guys, he sets himself apart. The ball comes off his bat just different than everyone else.

“I didn't realize he was as big and as strong. There's moments throughout the course of the game when he gets fired up where he gives you a handshake or kind of grabs you and it's like, man, he's rag dolling me around this dugout. So I'm just blown away with the size, strength, speed, explosiveness. He's got everything."

Mark DeRosa's next gig?

DeRosa, who has twice interviewed for major-league job openings, has no idea whether this tournament will lead to a future managerial job.

“The experience has been unbelievable,’’ he said. “Being in the locker room with these guys and clubhouse with these guys has been one of the highlights of my life.

"The game has started to slow down. I was more nervous in the exhibition games than I think I am now. Now that might change [Saturday], but managing within the parameters of the pitching guidelines that we're dealing with kind of, I don't want to say makes it easier, but you kind of have outs, right? You kind of have to follow a certain lightly scripted plan.

“As far as managing in the future, I literally did not take this as a kind of a stepping stone to that. I kind of took this because I felt like in my heart this was a perfect opportunity.

“So, I have no idea what the future holds.’’

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: WBC 2023: Team USA in awe as Ken Griffey Jr. shows off home run swing