SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Only one player on the United States roster for the World Baseball Classic was born in the 21st century.
Ask him how many of his teammates were pictured on baseball cards he owned as a kid, and he says, “All of them.’’
When veteran PR man Mike Swanson, who is handling Team USA media relations, shook his hand at its first workout, the player said, “Nice to meet you.” Countered Swanson: “We’ve met before. It was after we (Arizona Diamondbacks) won the World Series in 2001. I have a picture of your dad holding you in his arms. You were just over a year old.”
Don’t get the wrong impression: Bobby Witt Jr.’s youth is anything but a disqualification.
On a team that boasts 18 All-Stars, 11 Silver Slugger Award recipients, five Gold Glove winners, three Most Valuable Players and three Rookies of the Year, Witt is not out of place. For that, we can take the word of a prodigy from another time and place.
“Bobby, he's an impressive young man,” said Ken Griffey Jr., who was introduced to the world as “The Kid” at age 19 and decades later is serving as Team USA hitting coach. “I had him during the Futures Game in 2021, so he made a good first impression then. He's grown a lot since then.
“When you're in the big leagues, you're gonna have to grow up, and he's done a great job so far. We're going to have a lot of fun in the WBC.”
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Witt, 22, punched his ticket to a spot on the U.S. roster with an impressive rookie season last year in Kansas City, where he arrived with the oversized expectations that come with being not only the Royals’ 2019 No. 1 draft choice (second overall) but also with being labeled the top prospect in the game. He did nothing to tamp down those expectations with a game-winning double in his MLB debut, and he ultimately produced across-the-board numbers that justified the advance notices.
Witt was just the fifth player 22 years or younger to hit 20 home runs and steal 30 bases in the same season, and he led all rookies in extra-base hits (57) and RBIs (80).
“I think for Bobby, it was two-fold,” U.S. manager Mark DeRosa said of the decision to add Witt to the team. “Obviously, he’s supremely talented. He’s gonna be one of the great players in the game in short order.
“But also, to get him around these guys, right? I told him yesterday, ‘Take a backseat to no one. Nuzzle up to these guys. You’ll be the one, a couple of years from now, kind of putting your arm around some guys. I just want him to enjoy (this). But the bottom line is everyone is going to have to contribute for us to win.”
DeRosa didn’t have to ask twice.
“It was an immediate yes, for sure, that’s the first thing,” Witt said of his Team USA invite. “But it's just an unbelievable opportunity to be around these guys, just a blessing to represent the United States. Any time you get to do that, it's always a great honor.”
Witt’s father, Bobby, also was a highly touted prospect (drafted third overall in 1985) whose high-octane fastball led to his promotion to the majors after just half a season in the minors. The father and son hold the distinction of being the highest-drafted combo in MLB history, but Witt Sr., who was heralded as another Nolan Ryan in the making, displayed intermittent flashes of brilliance. Control issues prevented him from becoming one of the sport’s elite starters, although he lasted 16 seasons in the big leagues.
Witt Jr. never saw him play, but he profited from his dad’s second career in baseball as a player agent, growing up around major leaguers. His father has remained a touchstone.
“I think just having him teach me how to be a big leaguer and how to be who I am,” Witt Jr. said. “(He) tells me what kinds of things to do and not do. The right things, the wrong things. It's kind of like having a cheat sheet.
“He gives me a call pretty much every day, after every game. It's just to kind of get feedback from him. He's been there, done that. And so that was good.”
Witt Jr. said he was prepared to do whatever asked of him for Team USA. On Wednesday night, in the Americans’ first exhibition (against the San Francisco Giants), he entered the game in the sixth inning at shortstop, where he is expected to play regularly this season for the Royals after spending a third of his innings at third base last year. He was unable to barehand a slow roller, but moments later, he made a leaping grab of a line drive to take away a hit.
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Before the game, Witt worked on hand coordination drills with Dino Ebel, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ third base and infield coach who is serving as Team USA’s third-base coach.
“I was impressed (with him) from Day One,” Ebel said. “I followed him through the draft. I watched him in spring training when he first got up to big-league camp, then last year making the team and now he's on our team. A ton of tools, a ton of talent. I look for big things in the future with this kid.
“He's got a great look on his face. He's confident. I know he's excited to be on this team.”
If Witt is at all overwhelmed, he doesn’t show it.
“He’s been the guy his whole life,” Ebel said. “High school, Team USA (under 18), a No. 1 pick for the Royals. It's just a baseball game to him. He plays free, he plays fearless. He doesn't even know the crowd is there. He just plays baseball. He loves to be on the field. And that's the part I like.”
Bally Sports’ David Brown contributed to this report.