The 2013 College National Team is taking shape this week, as the USA Baseball National Training Complex plays host to the nation's best college underclassmen for the first stop in their month-long summer tour. Players from some of the best college programs in the country will come together on June 21 for the first team meeting before their 33-day journey convenes.
The Collegiate National Team consists of 24 players and will spend the last week of June and the better part of July traveling both domestically and internationally to take on an array of competition, including summer wood-bat teams from three North Carolina-based leagues, as well as national teams from both Japan and Cuba.
For the USA Baseball staff in charge of compiling the roster, which includes head coach Jim Schlossnagle (Texas Christian) and his assistants, preparing for actual competition is only half the battle. Often, choosing players to fill out the roster can be just as difficult.
"We have to do everything we can to represent all of college baseball," said USA Baseball's Eric Campbell, who serves as the general manager of national teams. He oversees the committee saddled with selecting the best players from a nationwide pool of talent. As a general rule, USA Baseball limits its player pool to non-draft eligible players in order to avoid conflicts with professional baseball.
Players are suggested to and selected by Campbell, Schlossnagle and his committee based on performances in both previous summer leagues and respective college seasons.
"Other than playing in Omaha, it's the highest honor that your players or coaches can have," Schlossnagle said.
Because of the inevitable conflict with teams participating in the College World Series, the committee also selects alternates who travel during the team's early schedule and are available in the event that CWS-participating players cannot fulfill their commitment.
As the roster stands now, several All-Americans highlight the national team including first-teamers Alex Bregman and Aaron Nola of LSU, second-teamer Tyler Beede of Vanderbilt, and third-teamers Trea Turner and Carlos Rodon of N.C. State. The U.S. team also consists of many first-round prospects for the 2014 draft.
In 2011 and 2012, USA Baseball filled its allotted roster limit and used alternates strictly as fill-ins until the conclusion of the College World Series. For the first time ever, in 2013 the committee felt that it was important to leave additional roster space as incentive for alternates who could eventually be named to the team's full summer roster. The coaching staff will spend the opening 10 days of the schedule evaluating players in order to fill the remaining seven spots and submit a final roster of 12 pitchers and 12 position players.
In that first portion of their schedule, Team USA will play two four-day "training" stints through some of the Coastal Plain League's most successful cities. The CPL tour will be separated by one matchup in Cary, N.C., against the Southern Collegiate League's all-star team. In its CPL competition, Team USA will play familiar foes in Fayetteville, Wilmington and Morehead City in addition to first-time stops in Peninsula, Wilson, Florence, and Thomasville.
Campbell said that the CPL dates are beneficial for both teams, giving Team USA an opportunity to train before international competition, and giving the summer league franchises a special event to highlight their schedules.
"Anytime you can play peer versus peer, it's great competition for both the players and the fans," Campbell said. "They do a great job with their franchises. We ask a lot of them, and they do a great job."
Following the CPL trip, the team will complete the team training portion of its schedule on July 1st and 2nd, with two games against the Catawba Valley Stars of the Carolina-Virginia League. Both games will be held in Hickory, N.C., and will give the American team a final tune-up before it begins its international competition.
On July 3rd, the team will make its way to Japan for the 39th annual installment of its All-Star Series. The five-game event will take place in four Japanese cities, including one game in Tokyo, and will rekindle a friendly rivalry that has produced so many thrillers in the past.
"I want every one of those players to have a lifetime baseball experience," Campbell said. "(But) I want this team to be ready."
Campbell, who often remembers a heartbreaking loss that the CNT suffered in 2009 in Japan, maintained that while the games are not part of a worldwide tournament, they definitely carry a sense of pride with them.
"(We'll) be on a personal mission to go erase that memory," Campbell said of himself and coach Schlossnagle, who is good friends with most of the 2009 coaching staff.
Despite the desire of both nations to prove amateur superiority, Campbell reiterated that the series with Japan has always been about more than just baseball. By taking his team across the globe to compete against Japan's best collegiate crop, Campbell hopes that Americans can begin to gain a better appreciation for the Japanese culture and their love of baseball.
"You could say 'Omaha' to top Japan players and they would know what you were talking about," he said. "When you talk about (their stadiums and universities) we don’t know as much about it. I want that to be a household concept in our country."
The U.S. team will have firsthand experience with Japan's baseball intensity, as Campbell anticipates crowds nearing 40,000 fans for the series. Each game will also be televised locally in Japan.
For Coach Schlossnagle, keeping his players focused on the task at hand while also appreciating the trip's obvious tourism opportunities will be key. "I'm (going to) challenge the guys to have two personalities," Schlossnagle said.
Following their stint internationally, the Americans will return to the states for a brief trip to the Chicago on July 15th and 16th, where the national team will play exhibition games against the Crystal Lake Cardinals of the Metropolitan Collegiate League of Illinois and the Metro League all-star team.
The collegiate league exhibitions will serve as a brief tune-up before the U.S. plays host to Cuba's national team for a five-game series. The Cuba series, which will begin on July 18, will be the second installment of a home-and-away competition that both countries agreed upon last spring. In the first exhibition matchup of the two nations since 1996, the 2012 CNT traveled to Havana, Cuba, losing a five-game series three games to two, with four of the five games decided by one run.
The Cuban team consists mostly of players in the country's top league, Serie Nacional, and will travel to the U.S. for the first time since the 1996 series, when it also won a five-game series three games to two.
"When you're coaching the best, you want to have the chance to compete against the best," Schlossnagle said.
Cuba, the U.S. and Japan are the top three ranked teams by the International Baseball Federation, and this friendship series will count toward the IBAF rankings. The series against Cuba will travel across multiple U.S. cities, with the first three games in the Midwestern with game one in Des Moines, Iowa, and games two and three at Werner Park in Omaha. Both teams will then return to North Carolina for the final two matchups at the National Training Complex in Cary and Durham Bulls Athletic Park in Durham.
"We are extremely excited to host the Cuban National Team this year," USA Baseball Executive Director/CEO Paul Seiler said. "We hope with the success last year in Havana and this year's series in the United States, we will build the foundation to continue this series for the foreseeable future."
The Cuba serieswill also serve as the end of the CNT schedule. Players and coaches will return home after what they hope will be a successful summer both individually and as a whole, representing all levels of baseball in the United States.
"Players earn the right to wear to nation's uniform," Campbell said, " . . . and those who will ultimately wear the uniform will create a lifetime baseball experience every day they are on tour with the collegiate national team."