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Representing Team USA as a coach or player is an experience unlike any other. It is an opportunity for some of the best in baseball to come together to pursue a common goal: to win gold on the international stage.
From the outside looking in, most people only get to see the surface of what it entails to put together a national team. Public announcements of who will make up the coaching staff and roster, the schedule of events, and the outcome are all just a small part of what goes on behind the scenes to compile the best possible team.
Behind the scenes, a considerable amount effort from the USA Baseball staff goes into the process of identifying a leader, determining a staff, and building a roster. It is a process that begins roughly six to nine months before that respective team’s international competition and involves difficult and complex decisions.
“Constructing a national team is like a puzzle, and everything that we do behind the scenes contributes to not only identifying the best players, but the best people to make up a coaching staff and support staff,” said USA Baseball Chief Executive Office Paul Seiler. “One of the biggest challenges is making sure we find the right pieces so that at least when we begin our journey to playing for a gold medal, we feel like the puzzle is pretty completed. We have a good picture of where we want to go and how we will get there.”
The primary part of assembling a national team is identifying a manager who will lead and embody what it means to represent Team USA. USA Baseball’s staff considers many variables when choosing who to give that responsibility to. Of course, their prior successes on the field matter, but more importantly, how they can connect with and motivate players and embrace what Team USA stands for helps complete the makeup of the ideal manager.
“The process of identifying a manager for a national team varies between the programs,” said National Teams General Manager Ashley Bratcher. “You need that person to be familiar with the age of the athletes who they will ultimately lead, but also, we try to look for someone that will represent our national team programs well and uphold our standards and expectations of our athletes.”
But just as important as identifying the right manager to lead a national team, it is just as vital for the manager to surround themselves with a staff that can identify the top talent and character at the respective identification events for their squad.
“I tried to surround myself with knowledgeable people through the entire process, people at all levels from high school, to college, to pro, to working with USA Baseball,” recalled 2022 18U National Team Manager Denny Hocking, who led Team USA to gold medals at the WBSC U-18 Baseball World Cup and World Cup Americas Qualifier.
“My number one thing while being in charge of a team is building relationships, so for me, it was important to put people in roles at the PDP League where they would be able to learn about the kids because I wanted an honest evaluation of the 100 players that we had there. It was about what 20 puzzle pieces we were going to put together in order to be the best representation of Team USA.”
When preparing for an international competition, determining a roster is one of the most complex parts of the entire process. From the hundreds of players in each age group who put their talent on display to the coaches and staff members, only 18 are selected for the 12U National Team, while 20 are chosen for the 15U, 18U, and Women’s National Teams. Meanwhile, the Collegiate National Team carries 26 players and the Professional National Team’s roster size ranges from 24-30 players based on the event.
It’s not always about finding the best players, though. It’s about finding the right players.
“When we’re identifying players, we tend to look for qualities that would play well in the international environment,” explained 2022 15U National Team Manager Drew Briese, who led the team to its second consecutive World Cup title last summer. “An international environment can be very hostile, so some of the things that we were looking for with that [15U] team were guys who were highly competitive, had the ability to handle adversity, and their qualities as a person fit into the team dynamic.
“If you want to find the right folks to hit the field and win that gold medal, you have to have that mentality in the team chemistry and dynamic in order to do it.”
Selecting a national team is an intricate process. With such a large pool of talented players to choose from that can compete at a high level, the few who are selected must be able to not only fill the roles needed but also have the intangibles. The things that can’t be taught on a ball field.
“Everyone's pretty much in agreement on who the first 10 to 12 players are, but it's those last few pieces for the roles that we need that you can't miss on because those are what's really going to determine your success,” said 2022 12U National Team Manager R.J. Farrell, who guided the squad to an 8-0 record and a gold medal at the WBSC U-12 Baseball World Cup. “It’s tough at any age group once you get the top players to Training Camp. They all can play the game, and they all bring something that's really, really good.
“When you start getting to where you're going to make the selection of who's going to actually make the national team, it comes down to who fits what piece that we feel we need. It’s a really difficult process, and there’s a lot of conversation involved. But at the end of the day, it's what we have to do.”
Most national teams have a primary identification event where the national team staff and a group of Task Force members carefully evaluate every player in the event. However, the selection process varies between each national team program.
For the 12U and 15U teams, the process for selecting players starts at USA Baseball’s identification events: The Futures Invitational, the National Team Championships in Arizona and North Carolina, and the National Team Identification Series.
The primary identification event for the 18U National Team is the Prospective Development Pipeline (PDP) League, which features 100 of the top eligible players for the following year’s draft. Meanwhile, the Women’s National Team process begins with the Women’s National Open, a three-day event for players around the country to compete for a Team USA roster spot.
In addition to the Women’s National Open, a large chunk of the identification for the Women’s National Team comes from various joint events that USA Baseball hosts alongside Major League Baseball throughout the calendar year. With women’s baseball still on the rise, these events give staff members and players a unique chance to build relationships while honing in on the development aspect of the game.
From these identification events, the coaching staff determines a Training Camp roster of 36-72 players to advance to the next step towards deciding who will wear U-S-A across their chest.
With the Collegiate National Team, the best 48-56 non-draft eligible players are selected for a Training Camp as the initial step towards identifying its national team each year. With the short time window from the end of the college season to when the team preps for its event, the players are evaluated throughout their season, giving USA Baseball a chance to recognize the best of college baseball.
“It's great for USA Baseball to put together its very best collegiate players to play international competition year in and year out,” said Professional and Collegiate National Teams General Manager Eric Campbell. “But the segment where college players play peer to peer during our annual Stars and Stripes series in which we pick our final team is an exceptional week and a lifetime baseball experience that no one will forget, regardless of if they make the final national team or not.”
Likewise, with the Professional National Teams, those squads are composed of the top Minor League Baseball and Major League Baseball players who are evaluated based on current and past performances at the professional level.
“It's exciting when MLB designates a pool of players that are available for a Professional National Team event,” added Campbell. “Those guys are playing for their club and are reaching for the pinnacle of the game, but it's exciting for everyone at USA Baseball when we can put our nation's uniform on those professional players. They've earned it based on their performance in any given year.”
For the national teams that select their roster from Training Camp, that stage could be considered the toughest part of the entire process. It is an intense three to four days and with a lot of conversation involved. Each night, the coaching staffs hold a meeting to evaluate the talent in front of them and determine who will represent Team USA. Because so many factors go into deciding that 18-20 player roster, the conversations can take hours.
“The difficulty during Training Camp to figure out that final roster is unlike anything else you experience,” said former 12U and 15U National Team Program Director Will Schworer. “Being in that room where they're talking about phenomenal athletes and how one might carry himself better off the field, or how one has a better bat but another player might be better defensively, is intense. The conversations can last hours, and it’s not an easy process.
“Just getting to the Training Camp roster is difficult, but once you’re looking for those final 18-20 guys, you really have to consider the intangibles on top of the talent. A lot of deep conversation goes into that selection process, and it’s not an easy one.”
Once a national team is selected, several different emotions surface for all involved. There’s the slight relief that the selection process has been completed, so much excitement that the best possible roster has been put together, and anticipation to really begin the journey to win gold.
“Selection Day is an interesting day because not only am I telling 20 players that they have made the national team, but I am also releasing 20 players and letting them know they didn’t make the team,” said USA Baseball alum and two-time Women’s National Team Manager Veronica Alvarez. “It’s a mix of emotions because I very much empathize with those players who I have to release knowing how hard they have worked to get to that stage, but it’s also exciting to present the news to the 20 who make it and let them know they are representing USA Baseball.
“By selecting someone to the Women's National Team, it means that not only have they excelled on the field, but that they encompass everything that it means to represent the game and represent women within the game.”
Alvarez is a four-time Women’s National Team alum and served as manager in 2019 and 2022, so having the experience as a player and a manager has given her a deeper appreciation for what it truly means to wear the U-S-A letters across your chest.
“Having been a player on the Women’s National Team, I have a love and passion for what it means to represent Team USA. I have really high expectations for the women who follow because I want them to be successful and understand what that looks like. But now, being on the coaching side, I’ve moved away from having a personal goal or accomplishment, and I now understand what it means to help somebody else accomplish a goal. I wear the uniform with pride and very much feel this responsibility to uphold the standards of USA Baseball and what it means to be a woman within the game.”
The journey to pursuing gold is extensive, but it is one that provides so much reward to all involved. It’s a gratifying experience for those staff members and coaches who get to see all of the months of hard work finally come to fruition when Team USA competes on the international stage. Therefore, no matter what capacity you are serving in, it’s a badge of honor to be able to represent the red, white, and blue through America’s Pastime.