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At USA Baseball there is a mantra of ‘The Gold Standard.’ Simply put, it is the mindset to win gold on one of the biggest stages of the sport.
This standard is most certainly lived out, as Team USA has 110 gold medals to its name since the organization became the national governing body for baseball in 1978. Three of those came this past summer when the 12U, 15U, and 18U National Teams all earned titles at their respective World Baseball Softball Confederation (WBSC) Baseball World Cups, marking the first time that Team USA has ever won a gold medal at all three youth World Cups in a single year.
“The gold standard sounds a little aggressive sometimes, but it's more about a pursuit of excellence and a pursuit of perfection,” said USA Baseball Chief Executive Officer Paul Seiler. “Achieving perfection is a relative term, but it’s hard to do. If you look at what our responsibility is, as an organization, specific to international competition and an athletic representation, it's the sport of baseball wrapped in the American flag.
“When you take those two tenants of our identity, at least on the field, there’s a very high expectation in this country, and it’s one that we embrace of performing well at the highest level while competing for gold medals.”
In addition to the on-field attributes, the gold standard embodies the type of player and coach that comes through USA Baseball. The Team USA experience is not just about winning gold; it’s also about the character of the people who get to wear the U-S-A letters across their chest.
“To me, the gold standard has always been more about the way that we carry ourselves,” said Ashley Bratcher, general manager of the 18U National Team program. “Everything we do, we’re going to do it to the highest of our ability. How we treat others that we interact with and leaving things better than we found them is a big deal, because those are details that go into ultimately trying to win a gold medal. The hope and goal at the end of the day is to build better people, both staff and players, as well as better men and women in our process.”
Winning gold is not as easy as Team USA may make it seem. There is so much more that goes into ‘The Gold Standard’ than just coming out on top. What was an incredible run for the U.S. on the international stage could not have been done without the buy-in and commitment from players, coaches, and staff members.
“It truly takes a village to put the summer together from a behind-the-scenes standpoint, and for us to come out on top is extremely special. Three World Cups in one summer just never happens, and it was an unbelievable experience for our organization,” said Will Schworer, who oversaw the 12U and 15U National Team programs over the summer.
“We had comebacks, we had losses, we dealt with adversity off the field from the normal challenges involved when traveling for a competition, but we controlled what we were able to control and at the end of the day, we were able to truly come together. Everybody involved just has so much willingness to do what it takes in the pursuit to win gold, and it speaks volumes to the drive behind USA Baseball.”
That ‘village’ of players, coaches, and staff members all played an integral part to creating the storyline of three World Cup titles within a six-week span.
*12U NATIONAL TEAM
*While traveling to an international competition can be experience of a lifetime, a lot of challenges can be faced. For the 12U National Team, who traveled to Tainan, Taiwan, for its World Cup, it was forced to quarantine on a single floor of a hotel for nearly a week before they could step foot on a field. For what manager RJ Farrell initially saw as a setback, his perspective quickly changed once the team lived it. Looking back, he sees that time as a valuable piece to the squad winning gold.
“At first, I was super nervous about it,” said Farrell. “I didn’t know what we were going to do with a team of 11- and 12-year-olds who are confined to one floor of a hotel for days. We had to find ways to get them moving every day but looking back I think that time helped us a lot. As pessimistic as I was, my optimism turned fast. Since we didn’t have to compete right away, we got to adjust to the time, but also the players were forced to become friends because they had nowhere else to go. I think it ultimately helped us on the field when it came time to compete; it was unexpectedly a big time positive for us.”
The chemistry certainly showed on the field, as the team went undefeated with an 8-0 record and outscored its opponents 99-25. Just looking at the results, though, doesn’t quite tell the story of this team. Even though it did not endure a loss during the stretch of the tournament, the team found themselves at times in tough spots against opponents but managed to find a way to win every time.
“What was special about this group is that they all put their egos aside,” said Farrell. “They all had the mentality that they were going to do whatever is going to help the team. I think for a group of young men, they did exceptionally well in putting the team first. They knew that if we called on them, it was going to be an important situation and that we were going to need them to do their thing.”
In its second game of the pool play against Japan, Team USA led by just one run heading into the final inning before exploding for 14 runs, which included a pinch-hit grand slam by Colin Anderson, to come away with a 21-6 win. What could have been a narrow win for the stars and stripes turned into a dominant performance at the plate and a glimpse into what potential this team had.
Fast forward to its first two Super Round games against Mexico and Chinese Taipei, the U.S. trailed at one point in both of those must-win matchups but came up clutch in the final frames. Whether it was the walk-off single by Anthony Ramon against Mexico or the go-ahead grand slam by Anthony Frausto in the fourth inning against Chinese Taipei, those moments led to the ultimate test of defeating a talented Venezuela team in its final two games of the tournament.
The first game between the squads was tightly contested with Team USA earning a 12-7 win; it was a back-and-forth battle between the top two offensive teams as there were a combined 19 hits and seven home runs in the game. In the gold medal game, Venezuela held a 2-1 lead through the first two-and-a-half innings, but the U.S. scored nine unanswered runs in combination with James Stout III’s 4.2 strong innings in relief en route to winning gold for the fourth time in the last five World Cups.
“I think on paper or if you're looking from the outside in, you don't feel the nervousness that some of the players did or excitement on coming back from games that they were battling through, but this team never let up,” said Schworer. “They were taught to keep going and keep hitting the gas for the entire six innings, and all the credit to the kids because it was it was an impressive feat that they pulled off.”
For Farrell, making his managerial debut and leading the squad with a world title this summer was a full circle moment as it was something he had been eagerly waiting to do for nearly three years. A member of the 2019 12U National Team staff that went to Taiwan, Farrell had been asked shortly after that event to be the manager in 2020, but due to challenges and setbacks from COVID-19, he was never able to fully assume the position until this past summer.
“Since coming back from the 2019 World Cup in Taiwan, I had thought a lot about the couple of losses that we had and how we didn’t medal,” said Farrell. “It was in my head a lot. Fortunately, we made the run that we did this summer and came away with a gold medal. It almost felt like redemption. A lot of us had put a lot of time and effort into this team, and to finally be able to see it through and bring the gold back home was truly special not just for me, but for everyone involved in the 12U program.”
*15U NATIONAL TEAM
*While being a part of a national team is a great honor, there comes a responsibility when chosen to represent Team USA. A large component of that responsibility is a level of maturity.
As a teenager there are a lot of highs and lows emotionally and trying to navigate through the growing pains of life can be a tough task. For this year’s 15U National Team though, their identity was that they were a steadfast team. They managed to show maturity beyond their years when it came to how they handled tough situations, and it served as a large factor for ultimately defending its World Cup title.
“It’s a credit to those young players, who they are and how they studied themselves in a challenging environment,” said 15U National Team Manager Drew Briese. “We had a large group of guys who were just super steady and even keel. They never got too high or too low. It was really a credit to the young people that we had and how they went about their business. It was one of the reasons that I really, really loved that team. I loved coaching them because of the mentality that they had.”
One of the hardest situations that the 15U team faced the entire time in Hermosillo, Mexico, was the hostile environment that they played in. The environment not only created intense situations in games, but it also created incredible memories for this team as their story unfolded.
“The moment was never too big for those young people,” said Briese. “When you get into a situation where you're in a foreign country, and most of the stadium of several thousand people are against you, you worry a bit about what the what the response is going to be, but they answered. The moments of those young men playing under pressure, and the way that the team performed will always stick out as great memories.”
In its second game of the tournament the U.S. had to face Venezuela after a wild 29-0 win over South Africa the day before. The team trailed 5-1 heading into the final frame but scored four runs, impressively all while down to its final out, to earn a 5-4 walk-off victory.
Likewise, in its Super Round game against Panama it managed to earn another walk-off victory. This game was crucial in the pursuit of gold, as it was coming off a 12-6 setback to Japan and therefore could not endure another loss. The squad faced a 5-4 deficit heading into the bottom of the seventh, and just as it looked as though Panama might have been able to put the U.S. away, Coy James homered to tie the game and force extra innings. In the eighth, Alex Harrington’s sacrifice fly brought the game-winning run across.
“The Venezuela and Panama games were probably my favorite memories from the tournament,” said James. “I’ll tell those stories forever. In the Venezuela game we were down 4-1 in the bottom of the seventh, and I remember leading with a hit to get us going and eventually scored after a couple of walks to make it 4-2 with two outs. With how intense the crowd was, we really didn’t know if we were going to be able to pull it out, but we managed to create some runs with a couple more hits to win the game.
“When we played Panama, we were down late again, but I homered in the seventh to tie the game up and go to extras. It was a great feeling when I ran around the bases back to my teammates, and we ended up winning that game too. We were all going crazy at the end, and it was just a really cool environment to be in.”
After a shutout victory over Chinese Taipei in its second Super Round game, its final test of the tournament was Cuba. Like the 12U team, the 15U squad had to beat Cuba in back-to-back games on the path to its world title. Facing Cuba though, it wasn’t anything new for this team. Just like several of its previous games, there were several thousand fans in the stands and nearly all of them were cheering against the United States.
In the preview of the gold medal game, it was as though the crowd added fuel to the fire as the U.S. easily handed Cuba with an 11-1 result. It was a complete performance by the stars and stripes as it tallied 12 hits at the plate and held the opposition to one hit with seven strikeouts.
The gold medal game was a much different story though, as the teams were tied at 3-3 after the first three innings. Ethan Holliday’s RBI fielder’s choice in the fifth inning plated what proved to be the game-winning run, and that moment combined with four shutout innings in relief by Zane Burns and Ryan Harwood gave the U.S. just what it needed to complete the task of bringing home gold and winning a second straight world championship.
“I vividly remember the end of that gold medal game when it was 4-3 in the top of the seventh and Cuba had runners at the corners with one out,” said Schworer. “Zane Burns had an unbelievable outing, but Ryan Harwood took over and only need eight pitches to strike out the final two batters. There were about 3,500 people in the stands chanting ‘Sí, se puede’ in that moment, rooting for Cuba and against the United States. Credit to the guys on the field for coming together as a cohesive unit and playing for each other. It was it was an unreal experience and phenomenal to watch come to fruition.”
*18U NATIONAL TEAM
*The 18U National Team is one of the more highly touted squads in the amateur baseball landscape. For starters, they have won 10 World Cups, including five of the last six dating back to 2012, but also, the pool of players that the team is selected from are some of the most talented in the world at the amateur level. Players like two-time Gold Glove award winner Manny Machado, two-time World Series Champion Alex Bregman, two-time Silver Slugger Award recipient and MVP Bryce Harper, and three-time Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw have all represented the United States as the 18U level.
Given the history and visibility of this program, this year’s World Cup title had a different sense of pride to it by being held in Sarasota and Bradenton, Florida. It was the first time since 1995 that the United States had hosted a World Cup at the U-18 level.
“In terms of visibility and awareness of the program and international baseball it was really cool to be on U.S. soil,” said 18U National Team General Manager Bratcher. “For the players, their families and friends were able to support them because of the accessibility that it provided by being held in Florida. And, of course, anytime you can defend a championship on your own soil and be successful, has a different level of relation and pride to it.”
Defending your home soil can be a daunting task, but for this squad it was something they embraced. It found a way to battle back time and time again, and it started with the first game of the tournament. In its opener against The Netherlands, Team USA faced a 3-0 deficit after the first inning-and-a-half but managed to score nine unanswered runs, highlighted by Bryce Eldridge’s grand slam in the fifth inning, to complete the comeback.
The squad also faced adversity in its game with Canada when Team USA trailed 5-3 in the middle frames, but a fifth-inning surge preceded a dramatic seventh as the U.S. held off Canada, who made it a 7-6 game with the bases loaded and one out, when Blake Mitchell shut the door with back-to-back strikeouts to help the U.S. secure the top seed in the Super Round.
“I think the chemistry part was huge for us,” said Eldridge. “We’ve all been boys for the past couple of years from playing on the summer circuit together. Even though we were down first, which was in almost half of our games, none of us were afraid of the competition. We had a bunch of leaders on the team who picked everyone up, and we were never worried any time when we were behind that we were going lose. We were confident and were ready for any adversity that came our way. We always found a way to respond.”
After finishing pool play undefeated, Team USA’s first true setback came in the Super Round opener against Chinese Taipei when it suffered a 6-2 loss. It was a moment that could have been of true defeat for a team but keeping the goal of winning gold at the forefront was the driver to how the rest of the tournament played out.
After a comeback win over Mexico the following day, the most important game of the tournament came in its matchup against Japan. A win would put the U.S. in the gold medal game but a loss placed the team playing for a bronze medal. Team USA got off to a rocky start, facing a 3-2 deficit in the third inning with Japan having the bases loaded with no outs. Due to heavy rain, however, the game was suspended until the next day.
The suspension ultimately became a pivotal moment in the tournament that flipped the script.
“I remember when we were on the bus back at the hotel, it was just the coaches and players, and I told them that this tournament no longer comes down to the decisions that the coaches are going to make,” said 18U National Team Manager Denny Hocking. “I asked them if they knew what the word ‘destiny’ meant, and they said no, so I read them the definition and suggested they have a team meeting in the hotel about what it means and where we were going to go from here.
“I went back to my room that night and took a picture of my whiteboard. Before we left for that game against Japan I wrote on it, ‘USA vs. Chinese Taipei gold, Japan vs. Korea bronze.’ I put an American flag we were given by a veteran on 9/11 along with a shield from his platoon that he gave me next to it and sent the photo in a group message and said, ‘That was what I wrote in my room before we left today, and you can use this in your meeting.’ About an hour later I got a response from Dylan Cupp, who we deemed our team captain, and he said, ‘Don’t worry Skip, we got this.’
“It was at that point I knew we were going to win gold. These boys understood the responsibility they had, and it was at that moment when I got that text that I knew we were truly destined to win the gold medal.”
The next day when the game resumed with the bases loaded and no outs, Christian Rodriguez put together one of the most impressive pitching performances you would ever see as he needed just 13 pitches to strike out the side in the third to keep Japan at bay and shift the momentum to Team USA. The next four innings were a pitcher’s duel as just one batter reached base in the stretch, but in the bottom of the seventh the U.S. managed to cause some chaos. With runners in scoring position following a single and two-base error, a balk tied the game at 3-3. Two at-bats later, Cupp delivered the walk-off single to advance the stars and stripes to the gold medal game.
It was just a 30-minute turnaround for the U.S. to prep for the finale due to the semifinal game’s suspension, but the team never wavered. Not only was it coming off the thriller over Japan, but it had a revenge game ahead of them in Chinese Taipei and the U.S. was not going to be denied of its destiny.
Despite Chinese Taipei scoring first, Team USA managed to knot the score a 1-1 in the fourth and take its first lead of the game in the fifth at 2-1. After Taipei failed to bring the game-tying run home in the sixth Eldridge put the game away in the seventh, both at the plate and on the mound. In the top of the seventh he hit a three-run home run to left field, then came in to pitch in the bottom half and induced a scoreless frame. At that point, the squad officially reached their destiny of winning a gold medal to take back the title of world champion in front of friends and family on home soil.
“Once we won, I was just extremely happy for the boys, for being able to accomplish what they ultimately set out to do,” said Hocking. “I think that experience made those guys realize what it takes to reach the goal that you set out to have. I hope that when they reflect on the player meeting that they had after the Japan game was suspended, they see how much of a life-changing moment that was.”
*When the final out of a gold medal game is recorded, and you’re on the winning side, it is a moment unlike any other. Knowing that your team has won a gold medal for your country is something that so few people get to experience, but the ones who have hold onto that memory forever.
“I don't even think I could even try explaining the emotions in that moment,” said Eldridge. “In that time, I just remember throwing up my glove and almost fell. It was like a blackout. I won a state championship, and at the time that was the greatest feeling I ever had playing baseball. But winning a gold medal on the world stage was a feeling that still I don't know how to describe to people when they ask about it. There’s nothing else like it.”
On top of winning a gold medal, Anderson, Eldridge, and James each took home some additional hardware as they were named the Most Valuable Player at their respective World Cups.
“It was amazing to win the MVP award,” said James. “All the hard work I had been putting on the field and at the gym had paid off. Every game I was just trying to help the team win and ended up doing well enough to win MVP. It was a great honor.”
Once a player is immersed in the Team USA experience and understands what it means to uphold the gold standard, it becomes something they are forever a part of. Only a select group of players get to know what the pursuit of gold is like; what it means to never give up, how to have a steadfast approach to any situation, and how it feels to reach their ultimate goal. But, more importantly, the off-field aspects become just as intrinsic for players and coaches alike. The importance of individual success fades into the background when one is a part of USA Baseball and gives way to continuing to build upon the foundation they stand upon, aiming to make it better for those who are to follow. USA Baseball becomes a part of one’s makeup, and is something they carry with them everywhere they go.
“Ever since we went to Taiwan, my teammates and I were always researching about the 15U and 18U teams and when they were playing,” said Anderson. “All those players were so good, and the other MVPs, Coy James and Bryce Eldridge, they were amazing and dominated at their tournaments. I definitely look up to them.
“They had that one job, to get that gold medal, and that’s what they did.”
On top of USA Baseball’s three gold medals this summer, the Women’s National Team also contributed the gold standard when it won its five-game friendship series with Canada back in July. Additionally, last month the 18U National Team managed to capitalize on a record-breaking summer for Team USA and clinch a spot at the 2023 WBSC U-18 Baseball World Cup in Tainan, Taiwan. The team went undefeated with an 8-0 record and won a gold medal at the World Cup Americas Qualifier in La Paz, Mexico.
“I think success breeds success,” said Seiler. “I believe there are so many of our athletes and coaches who desire to maintain the excellence that those before them have achieved.
“I feel like as we've grown as an organization and our pipeline of opportunity has expanded, that's it’s created different avenues and opportunities to have more and more players and their families connected to what it means to be involved with USA Baseball. As soon as you get close to the epicenter of being on a USA Baseball national team, I think it’s easy to understand what you’re playing for.”
And what they’re playing for, of course, is this gold standard that was created in 1978 which ultimately led to a record-breaking summer for Team USA.