Image credit: David Robertson (Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
David Robertson has led a fulfilling baseball life.
The 36-year-old reliever has been an all-star, pitched in six postseasons and won a World Series with the Yankees in 2009.
He also won a gold medal with Team USA at the 2017 World Baseball Classic, an experience that stands up with all the rest.
“It was exciting. It was adrenaline-filled outings every time,” Robertson said of the WBC. “It was like a Game 7 of the playoffs every game. It was definitely something I was really glad I got the opportunity to do and I would rank it up there with getting into the playoffs and potentially winning a World Series. I would put it at that level of excitement.”
With that experience at the front of his mind, Robertson jumped at the opportunity to once again represent his country in international competition.
Robertson is one of nine prominent major league veterans who will represent Team USA in the Americas Qualifier in Florida next week. Joining Robertson on the roster are Matt Kemp, Matt Wieters, Homer Bailey, Todd Frazier, Logan Forsythe, Edwin Jackson, Jon Jay and Marc Rzepczynski in addition to other former big leaguers and a host of top prospects.
The U.S. is one of eight teams competing in the Americas Qualifier with Canada, Colombia, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Puerto Rico and Venezuela. The winner of the qualifier earns an automatic berth to the Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
“People always say ‘you gotta play for something,’ ” Frazier said. “Well, listen, this is top of the notch, top of the heap here. This is what you’re playing for. You’re playing for your country. I’m taking pride in it. I’m excited to put that USA on my chest and represent them and put my best foot forward.
“It was an easy yes for me. I didn’t have to ask anybody about this one. I knew that if I had the opportunity, I was going to take it with open arms.”
MLB and the MLBPA informed national federations in March that only non 40-man roster players would be eligible to compete in the Americas Qualifier. With that restriction, Team USA and the rest of the nations competing had to select rosters from a pool of free agents or minor leaguers not yet on 40-man rosters.
Robertson said he had offers from teams in the offseason but didn’t feel like any were the right fit. When he heard USA Baseball was seeking veterans for its Olympic qualifying team, he reached out to USA Baseball CEO Paul Seiler to express his interest, which was reciprocated.
“I just thought it would be a lot of fun,” Robertson said. “Doing the World Baseball Classic was just such a fun event to do and I thought this could be something special. A chance to play for your country again and earn a gold medal, I thought it would be a great experience. The opportunity was presented to me and I jumped on it.”
The veteran presence on Team USA’s roster stands in sharp contrast to the roster it fielded at WBSC Premier12 in Japan in 2019, its first chance to qualify for the Olympics.
While the team had veterans like Clayton Richard and Brian Flynn on the pitching staff, catcher Erik Kratz was the only position player on the roster with major league experience. Team USA was held to three runs or less in four of its seven games during the tournament and failed to qualify.
“I think certainly part of that coming back from (Premier12) is we were a really good team … but we wanted a little more veteran presence in the batter’s box,” National Team general manager Eric Campbell said. “Nothing against anybody we had. They were all great players and most of them are in the big leagues now or knocking on the door. But we did look at that as a priority, how we were going to navigate our lineup.”
To assemble that veteran group, USA Baseball held a mini-camp for major league free agents on May 12 at the Mets spring training facility in Port St. Lucie, Fla. Kemp, Wieters and Frazier all attended as did Jonathan Lucroy, who signed a minor league deal with the Braves four days later.
On the pitching side Team USA invited Robertson, Bailey, Jackson, Rzepczynski and Brandon Dickson, another former major leaguer who spent the last eight seasons playing in Japan.
Some had previous Team USA experience. In addition to Robertson’s time at the WBC, Wieters played for the Collegiate National Team when he was at Georgia Tech and Frazier is a two-time Team USA veteran, first with the Collegiate National Team in 2006 and then at the Pan American Games Qualifier in 2010.
Like Robertson, Frazier’s interest was fueled by his previous experiences playing for Team USA.
“For me, whenever somebody says playing for Team USA, in my opinion, there’s nothing better,” Frazier said. “I keep telling guys that get opportunities ‘play for your country,’ even if it’s a different country. Everybody takes pride in that at the end of the day.
All of the players who participated in the mini-camp except for Lucroy are now on Team USA’s roster. Once the Angels designated Jay for assignment on May 14, they quickly scooped him up as well.
“We looked at a subgroup of free agents and said ‘Hey, do we go completely free agents and find a vehicle to get ready or do we go all affiliated (prospects)?’ ” Campbell said. “Where we landed was a little bit of both. Some really good free agents who can still really play the game of baseball with some players from affiliates that are really good players as well.”
There is motivation beyond just pride for the veterans to participate. The Americas Qualifier gives them a chance to show major league teams they can still perform at a high level in competitive settings. Jay and Forsythe are currently part of the Angels and Brewers organizations, respectively, but Kemp, Wieters, Frazier, Bailey, Robertson, Jackson and Rzepczynski are all free agents.
“I’m not done yet,” Frazier said. “I’m a guy that can still play. I want to play as long as I can, but I understand I’m a year or two from being out if you want the truth. I understand my body, I understand where I’m at in my career, but I can definitely help a team get through a playoff push or get through the playoffs. I know I can do it.”
For the veterans, playing for Team USA is a win-win situation. If they play well and get signed, they are back in the majors. If they don’t, they have a chance to represent their country and, potentially, achieve something none of them have before.
An Olympic gold medal.
“Our seasons overlap with the Olympics so it’s kind of hard to visualize going to the Olympics when you’re playing in MLB,” Robertson said. “But now that I’m getting the chance to do this, I think it’s something that’s really exciting. I’m excited to see what it’s like to compete for your country at that level.”