Going Deep With USA Manager Buck Martinez

By Alan Schwarz

December 5, 2005

DALLAS, Dec. 5 — As the pieces of the upcoming World Baseball Classic gradually fall into place, one of the biggest appeared on Monday afternoon: the Team USA manager will be Buck Martinez, the current ESPN analyst and former manager of the Blue Jays.

The prospect of managing the greatest collection of talent in
the history of baseball certainly has not left Martinez speechless.
Only minutes after the official press conference in which a
slew of committed superstars were announced
— including
Barry Bonds and Derek Jeter (United States), and Albert Pujols and
Miguel Tejada (Dominican Republic) — I sat down with Martinez to
discuss his evolving team, going up against Fidel Castro and bribing
the Rocket out of retirement:

ALAN SCHWARZ: What was your impression of the attitude about the World Baseball Classic before this press conference, and now after?

BUCK MARTINEZ: I think once everybody was aware of the names revealed today that have agreed to participate on a worldwide basis, everybody got pretty excited. To see Ichiro and Pujols and Clemens and Bonds and Piazza and Griffey Jr., the names are impressive. That really rang home about how the players feel about this. They are genuinely pumped up to play in this thing.

AS: What’s the difference between managing a real major league team that’s roughly .500, like you did with the Blue Jays, versus leading what will probably be the most talented group of players in the history of baseball in an exhibition-type event? How is your mindset different?

BM: I don’t think it’s any different. You’re trying to win a baseball game. Obviously you look on the bench and the players are a little bit different — they’re the greatest players in the world. They understand how to play the game. They also understand how to play for championships — you look at the roster, and it’s loaded with championship-caliber players. When they see what they’re playing for, you won’t have to motivate them. I think the players that have been on Team USA, like Jason Varitek, who have experienced playing for their country, they will spread the word.

AS: You’re trying to win a baseball game, but there are other considerations — the health of pitchers, for instance. How will the competitor in you keep in mind this higher concern?

BM: It’s higher because we want this to be an ongoing thing. We don’t want any player or GM or manager to come back and say, “We’re not doing it again because this guy got hurt.” Well, this guy can get hurt playing in his team’s spring-training game as well.

We’re going to take all the measures. That’s why we’ve put together such an experienced coaching staff that includes (bench coach) Davey Johnson and (pitching coach) Marcel Lachemann and (hitting coach) Reggie Smith, who have all participated in international play. But more than anything, they’re major leaguers. They’ve been through spring training more than once. They understand how guys get prepared. They also understand that if Ken Griffey Jr. runs around for five innings, he might not be able to play tomorrow. So you have to think about putting your roster together right. You have to have versatile players — guys who can play more than one infield or outfield position.

AS: But when the bell rings, how are you going to balance your competitive juices with the fact that you’re playing with other teams’ multimillion-dollar assets?

BM: We’re gonna score early and throw a big bullpen at ‘em! (Laughs.) You have remind yourself, first and foremost, we are there to win. But 1A, we have to protect the players.

I personally believe that they will be in a better situation than being with their team in spring training. Because everything will be more focused. We have 30 guys. Spring training has 50 guys. So guys don’t get as many at-bats. Our programs for them will be more customized to fit their needs. We will talk with pitching coaches to make sure that the guys we have that have unique routines will be addressed.

AS: So 1 is to win and 1A is the health of the players?

BM: Absolutely.

AS: You played in a Caribbean Series back in February 1971. What are your memories of that kind of international play?

BM: Yes. Frank Robinson was my manager. Had a guy named Reggie Jackson in right field. Don Baylor was in center, Tony Perez was at third. We beat Roberto Clemente’s team in the semis to make the World Series. I played for Santurce. It was a phenomenal league at that time. The fans down there just love their baseball.

AS: During the press conference this afternoon, it looked like you were talking some smack back to Fidel Castro.

BM: I was just quoting what he said — “We have 10 players who can replace Jose Contreras.” This is a great opportunity to display that.

AS: Do you think he has 10 guys better than Contreras?

BM: I would be surprised. Jose Contreras turned into a pretty special pitcher. I’m anxious to see his team.

AS: You grew up in the 1960s, went through the Cuban Missile Crisis as a kid, and later were in the United States National Guard. Is going up against Fidel Castro something special for you, something different than facing, say, the Dominican Republic?

BM: I grew up in Sacramento, and every night we had the B52’s take off over our house. Every night when I was 12 I felt we were going to go to war. But no, I don’t have anything. I have so many Cuban friends, including Cookie Rojas. It certainly will be special, though. As you say, when I grew up, Cuba was the big, bad guy just 90 miles away.

AS: How much is Marcel Lachemann already strategizing about how to deploy pitchers with the as-yet-undetermined pitch and inning limits, while also figuring who to save for an upcoming game?

BM: He’s tinkering already. We just learned the schedule in the first round, and we play the first two days, day off, then a game on the fourth day. You actually go backwards from the final on Monday the 20th, and go backward — not unlike what you would do to get your pitching staff ready for Opening Day. If you want A, B, or C you have to establish how you’re gonna get there.

AS: But sometimes there won’t be a tomorrow. You get behind in a game, and it can get pretty dicey.

BM: Reggie Smith put it in perspective when he said, “Buck, every game’s gonna be like Game 7.” Marcel told me today that you don’t want to get into a three-team, everyone’s 2-1 situation. You don’t want to lose a game. Then all the tiebreakers come into play.

AS: How much of your own personal funds have you earmarked to bribe Roger Clemens into pitching?

BM: Hey now. (Laughs.)

AS: But seriously, are you going to actively recruit players?

BM: Roger’s concern, as I understand it, is health only. If he’s healthy, ready to go, his offseason workouts go as he plans, Roger will be happy to play on the team. You don’t need to convince Roger Clemens.

There are other players we’re going to talk to. I’ve talked to three or four already.

AS: Not to suggest he’s one of those players, but Alex Rodriguez is in a pretty interesting situation — he still hasn’t decided whether to play for the United States or the Dominican Republic. Are you going to recruit him?

BM: Yes. You call him up and explain how valuable you think he would be to our team. I understand his unique dilemma. Alex has some special issues to deal with, being in New York. (Laughs.)

AS: You’ve known for about a week that you’re the manager of this team. How much of that time since have you spent playing with lineups and pitching staffs?

BM: A lot of it, believe me. It’s a tremendous opportunity to be the guy to think, “Geez, who’s gonna lead off here? Carl Crawford is a marvelous talent, but is he gonna make this team? Johnny Damon, does he lead off? Who hits second?” You can’t go wrong. Really.

AS: Talking about crowded spots, your bullpen is ridiculous — Billy Wagner, B.J. Ryan, Huston Street, Brad Lidge, Chad Cordero, Eddie Guardado and Jason Isringhausen have already committed, and we haven’t even talked about the Andy Pettittes and Barry Zitos who might not get actual starts. How do you keep everybody happy?

BM: You inform them that you leave your egos at the door. We’re going to make sure that everyone participates and do everything we can to win the game. Everyone on the team will play. We’re just going to have to manage people.

The prospect of shortening the game to six innings before running out three
closers for an inning apiece is pretty intriguing. And then tomorrow,
we’re gonna use these other three! It’s all about winning, that’s
for sure.

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