It’s among the better-kept secrets in Triangle sports. With the athletic programs of four Division I universities, a National Hockey League franchise and two high-level minor league baseball clubs competing for the devotion and dollars of area sports fans, USA Baseball has to scrap to get attention.
But the national governing body of the national pastime has a lot going on in Durham and Cary most of the year. Its teams practice at its National Training Complex in Cary, a four-field, $11 million layout that opened in 2007 with a showcase stadium that can accommodate 2,000 fans for other home games. (The only USA Baseball team that never plays here is the elite major league unit that plays in the World Baseball Classic.) The organization’s offices are at 10,000-seat Durham Bulls Athletic Park, which opened in 1995 and hosts its highest-profile games in the Triangle.
But what exactly is USA Baseball?
USA Baseball, which was made the official national governing body of the sport by the Amateur Sports Act of 1978, fields the only baseball teams officially representing the country in any competition. There are five levels of men’s teams and one of women’s, which plays baseball and not softball. “We’re the sole organization in our sport that when ‘USA’ is on the jersey has the authority to select and train teams,” said USA Baseball CEO Paul Seiler at his DBAP office. The organization has an annual operating budget of about $3 million, with sponsors such as Major League Baseball, the card company Upper Deck and equipment manufacturers Rawlings, New Era and Nike.
“When we win a game, we win it for our country,” Seiler said. “Our goal is to develop a pool of players at the major league level who have USA Baseball experience.”
And, he hopes, to resume play in the Olympics. The sport was dropped from the Games for 2012, and it needs a positive vote at a meeting of the International Olympic Committee in Copenhagen in October to be added back to the program for 2016.
Meanwhile, the area will be busy with USA Baseball this summer. The national team, comprised of collegians whose eligibility hasn’t expired, plays the most games. It formerly represented the country in the Olympics before pros began playing in 2000.
This national team’s 2009 tryout group originally consisted of over 40 players including Elon’s rising junior pitcher and Charlotte native Tom Girdwood, along with half a dozen from the ACCVirginia’s rising sophomore left-handed pitcher/first baseman Danny Hultzen and junior outfielder Jarrett Parker, Florida State’s junior outfielder Tyler Holt and right-handed pitcher/outfielder Mike McGee, Miami’s junior catcher Yasmani Grandal and Clemson’s junior southpaw Casey Harman.
With a 22-man final roster, that team is aimed at the 37th USA versus Japan Collegiate All-Star Championshipa five-game series that the home team almost always winsand the World Baseball Challenge in British Columbia, both in late July.
Most of its “friendlies” will be played locally, with five games against Canada in Cary or Durham from June 25-29 and three more against Guatemala from July 2-4.
The national team has long been a showcase for top prospects on the way to major league glory. Stephen Strasberg, the right-hander out of San Diego State who was the No. 1 pick this year by the Washington Nationals, defied the odds in 2008. Not only did he star for a 28-0 national team that defeated Cuba’s best along the way, but he was also selected to join the pros on the Olympic team last summer in Beijing.
Boston Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia and former Durham Bulls lefty David Price, now with the Tampa Bay Rays, also played for recent national teams.
“We know that all 41 are capable of playing for us, and we might end up cutting one or two first-round draft picks,” said national team coach Rick Jones of Tulane, a Chatham County native who coached at Fayetteville’s E.E. Smith High and Elon University earlier in his career.
Later in the summer, the pros come to Cary, and putting together that team is a much different proposition.
Seiler said perhaps 300 minor leaguers who are currently on the list for the team will compete in the IBAF World Cup in Germany in mid-September. The team will assemble in Cary for practice Sept. 1-2, and then host the Canadians for a series at the NTC over the next three days before playing its first World Cup game against Venezuela five days later.
The players on the team that won the World Cup in 2007 include current Tampa Bay third baseman and ex-Durham Bull, Evan Longoria, and current Bulls outfielder Justin Ruggiano.
“That was a brand new team,” Seiler said. “Putting together that team is always challenging because we’re starting from scratch. That team learns that ‘we’ are the United States and that we have to come together quickly.”
Currently going on at the NTC is the Tournament of Stars for under-18 players, which runs through Sunday. This is the highest-profile youth event for an organization that also sponsors international teams for under-14s and -16s (U14 and U16 for short).
The Tournament of Stars includes all-star teams representing a variety of sanctioning bodies, such as the American Legion and Babe Ruth leagues. This year’s event will include its best-known competitor yet in Bryce Harper, the 16-year-old, 6-foot-3 slugger from Las Vegas who was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated earlier this month, and who will play for the American Legion team. Harper, who is reputed to have hit a 570-foot home run, is being hailed as the best amateur prospect since Alex Rodriguez and has announced that he will forego his final two years of high school to enter the 2010 major league baseball draft.
“We’re thrilled that Bryce wants to be in the event,” said Rick Riccobono, director of the 18U national team. “He’s been described as a ‘once in a generation’-type player, and having seen him, it’s the truth.”
There are also two local players in the Tournament of Stars. Infielder and Apex High graduate Chris Diaz, who is headed to N.C. State, will play for the PONY team while senior Drew Woodall, a catcher from Cary who attends Athens Drive High, will play for the Legionnaires.
“That’s a work in progress in terms of identification (of top 14U players),” Seiler said. “But we have a vast system at the grassroots level through our member organizations.”