USA Baseball calls it athlete development. That's the process of identifying players at age 14, 16 or 18, getting those players into USA Baseball's system, and showing them what it means, at an early age, to wear USA on their chests.
In a perfect world, USA Baseball executive director Paul Seiler likes to say, a player can don that uniform throughout high school and college, and now right up through the minor leagues and the majors with the advent of the World Baseball Classic.
If you had to pick one player who was Mr. USA Baseball, it would have to be Huston Street. He wore the uniform in high school during the 2001 18U qualifying tournament in Cuba. That team was loaded with future big leaguers; Street played third base (and didn't pitch), next to shortstop Sergio Santos (who also didn't pitch). Outfielders Denard Span and Jeff Francoeur and shortstop B.J. Upton carried the offense. Scott Kazmir took the loss in the gold-medal game despite striking out 15 in 6 1/3 innings, when Kendry Morales took him deep and got the win on the mound.
Street went on to pitch for the college national team in 2002 and '03, authoring a 29-inning scoreless streak and an epic 8 2/3-inning, 94-pitch outing in the '03 Pan Am Games to beat Mexico in the semifinal game, a 14-inning American victory. Legend has it that some of Street's teammates—who included Jered Weaver, Seth Smith, Dustin Pedroia and Justin Verlander—kept informing head coach Ray Tanner the next day that Street was ready if needed to relieve Weaver, who had a 45-innings streak of his own end in the gold-medal loss to Cuba.
Fittingly, Street was a member of the inaugural WBC team in 2006 as well. His career illustrates how playing for USA Baseball can help a player's career develop, and how good a job USA Baseball does at identifying talent all the way down to high school players.
The 2010 World Junior Championships in Thunder Bay, Ontario, begin today with a new group of American players hoping to bring home a medal and to start their own histories. The major leagues are full of players who first got national attention through the 18U club. More recent clubs in 2005 and '04 already boast alumni such as lefthanders Brett Anderson and Clayton Kershaw (2005), righthander Tyson Ross (both clubs) and members of the loaded '04 club that included Buster Posey (pitching and playing third base), Justin Upton, Ike Davis and Andrew McCutchen in the lineup, with Jonathan Niese among the pitchers. Going further back, the '02 team in '02 took home a bronze medal in the World Championships in Quebec despite a roster that included ace Chad Billingsley (3-0 in the tournament), righty Ian Kennedy and a lineup with Delmon Young (nine homers in just 39 at-bats in the tournament), Allen Craig, Ian Stewart, Lastings Milledge and Jarrod Saltalamacchia.
Of course, that '02 tournament was loaded for other clubs as well, with Canada's roster including Russell Martin and Adam Loewen; Cuba's team was led in part by Yuliesky Gourriel, while Dodgers farmhand Chin-Lung Hu was Taiwan's shortstop.
The 1997, 2000 and 2002 World Championships were all held in Canada, and the U.S. didn't win any of them. In 1997, the junior tournament was held in Moncton, New Brunswick. That club was led by a pair of future big leaguers in Michael Cuddyer and Rick Ankiel. While Ankiel was mostly a pitcher on that squad—going 3-0, 1.82 with 48 strikeouts and 12 walks in 30 innings—he also hit and batted .387 with three homers, one of them an epic shot off the hotel at Toronto's SkyDome
This year's junior team may not even be as talented as last year's, considering that club had the top two picks in the '09 draft in righthander Jameson Taillon and No. 1 pick Bryce Harper. But USA Baseball has many of the top talents for the 2011 draft on this roster, as well as some of the the top 2012 talent, led by righthander/shortstop Lance McCullers Jr.
They'll try to make some new USA Baseball memories.
ALL-18U ALUMNI TEAM
C: Joe Mauer, Twins (2000). 1B: Billy Butler, Royals ('03). 2B: Jeff Baker, Cubs ('99). 3B: Ian Stewart, Rockies ('02). SS: J.J. Hardy, Twins ('00). OF: Delmon Young, Twins ('02); Matt Holliday, Cardinals ('97); Justin Upton, Diamondbacks ('04).
Pitchers: Daniel Bard, Red Sox ('03); Chad Billingsley, Dodgers ('02); Scott Kazmir, Angels ('01); Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers ('04); Jonathon Niese, Mets ('04); Huston Street, Rockies ('01).