PHOENIX — Pitching for the United States in the World Baseball Classic is something that R.A. Dickey actively wanted to do, and there’s an element of redemption to that in his mind.
The Toronto Blue Jays ace last played for the American national team at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, where a crushing 11-2 loss to Japan in the semifinals left them to settle for bronze thanks to a 10-3 thumping of Nicaragua.
Dickey certainly held up his end of the bargain at those Games, making two starts and winning both. Yet on the eve of his return outing for Team USA against Mexico on Friday at the Classic, he said Thursday afternoon that “the thing that stands out the most (from 1996) is coming up short.”
“That was one of my motivations for wanting to be a part of this experience,” he continued, sitting on the podium to the right of manager Joe Torre. “It was an incredible honour and standing on the podium when I bent my neck down, and had them place an Olympic medal around my head, is an experience I’ll never forget.
“So in my eyes what I’m playing for is a gold medal. For me. I don’t know what kind of trophy we get or a pendant or ring or whatever it is, but it’s a gold medal for me. …
“It was really bittersweet in the sense that I was hoping to play Cuba and beat Cuba for a gold medal, and we never even got to the game. So it was tough. And this is a chance to redeem that in some way.”
Redemption of course is a key part of Dickey’s remarkable evolution from failed first-rounder to National League Cy Young Award winner, a transformation completed through his mastery of baseball’s most mysterious pitch, the knuckleball.
Over the past three seasons with the New York Mets his career has come together, leading to his trade to the Blue Jays this off-season as the finishing piece to Alex Anthopoulos’ roster makeover.
“I’m very humbled by (the journey) because my life has been much about second chances, and not just second chances but third chances and fourth chances,” said Dickey. “And anything that I’ve done has been the product of people who have poured into me and loved me well. I’m not a self made man by any stretch of the imagination.
“The thing that makes it most rich for me is that I’m able to share it with those people that have really helped contribute to a very redemptive narrative, if you will. And it’s been great at every turn the last year or two. It’s been very satisfying.”
Even more satisfying will be if the United States changes its World Baseball Classic history, which features a second-round elimination in 2006 and a semifinal knockout in ’09. A frequent criticism of the American teams is that they’ve rarely had their best talent come out, something critics have routinely pointed out about the current squad, too.
Dickey doesn’t think that matters one bit.
“I’m looking through the lens of having a lot of international experience, and so I say that to preface this point: It’s not about talent as much as it’s about spirit, heart, desire,” he said. “In international tournament competition, talent doesn’t always win. Over the course of 162 games, it’s a little bit better a barometer. If you’ve got really good talent, you’re probably going to be one of the playoff teams, if you stay healthy.
“But in tournament play it’s a little bit different, so you want guys around you who are all in. It’s not a comment on anybody that chose not to come here, but if there’s one per cent of you that doesn’t want to be here, you shouldn’t come. Because that’s what it demands in order to win.
“I think we have got a clubhouse full of those guys, which is nice.”
COMES RECOMMENDED: Taylor Green, the 26-year-old Milwaukee Brewers infielder from Comox, B.C., takes over at third base for the injured Brett Lawrie and came recommended to Canada manager Ernie Whitt from an old teammate and friend.
“I have a little bit of an insight because Garth Iorg is the infield guy with the Brewers and I’ve been able to talk to Garth quite a bit, and Garth reaffirmed to me that Taylor Green – probably his best position is third base. So that eased my mind a little bit,” said Whitt.
“The one thing about Taylor, he gives you quality at bats. He’ll grind out an at bat for you, whether it’s a righty or a lefty.”
Green is a left-handed hitter and posted a .184/.265/.340 slash line in 58 games for the Brewers, with seven doubles and three homers in 103 at-bats.
Whitt added that long-time national team stalwart Jimmy Van Ostrand may also end up seeing some time at third base.
VENUE CHANGE: The Canada-Italy game Friday was moved from the impressive Salt River Fields facility in Scottsdale to Chase Field and its retractable roof because of a forecast calling for inclement weather all day.
First pitch was also advanced 30 minutes to 12:08 p.m. local, 2:08 p.m. ET, to ensure enough separation with the United States-Mexico contest, slated for a 7:08 p.m. local, 9:08 p.m. ET start.
VOTE FOR VOTTO: Cincinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto joined the Canadians on Thursday at Chase Field, and starter Shawn Hill was among those happy to see him.
“A hundred per cent, plus, I don’t have to face him, that always helps,” Hill said drawing laughs. “Having his bat in the lineup, he’s one of the best bats in baseball, period. So he’s obviously going to help us, no question.”
FERGIE IN THE HOUSE: Ferguson Jenkins, the only Canadian player in Cooperstown, will join Ken Griffey Jr., in throwing out the ceremonial first pitch before Canada takes on the United States on Sunday.
Tony La Russa will handle the honours before the Canada-Italy contest Friday, while Hall of Fame executive Roland Hemond, the Diamondbacks’ special assistant to the president who has Quebec lineage, will take care of the first pitch prior to Canada-Mexico on Saturday.