Yelich honored to be on Team USA for World Baseball Classic

Marlins outfielder looking forward to playing at home park in tournament

December 19th, 2016

Marlins Park is where arrived as a 21-year-old rookie in 2013 and where he's become an ascendant star, joining as the only Major League outfielders with Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards over the past three seasons.

Marlins Park also is where Team USA begins the 2017 World Baseball Classic against Colombia on March 10.

"I'd see the signs and ads before the game on the Jumbotron and think, 'That'd be kind of cool. If they ask me to do it, I'd say yes,'" Yelich said. "That's when I made up my mind that I wanted to play for Team USA."

:: 2017 World Baseball Classic ::

Team USA made up its mind quickly, too. Yelich remembers the day in October when -- while in the living room of his home in Westlake, Calif. -- he received the text message from Team USA general manager Joe Torre, asking if he was interested in joining the team.

"It was a surreal moment," Yelich said. "This is going to be the first time I'll play on Team USA. I didn't get a chance in high school and then I signed with the Marlins after my senior year, so I couldn't do it in college, either. This is something I've always really wanted to do."

Yelich, 25, is in many ways an ideal player for Team USA. He's a graceful, athletic defender in left or center field, as well as a potential batting champion who can hit anywhere in the lineup. And like Team USA third baseman -- Yelich's onetime travel-ball teammate in Southern California -- Yelich has yet to appear in the MLB postseason, making the WBC a perfect opportunity for the broader American audience to learn about an elite talent just entering his prime.

"This guy is a top-notch player," Team USA manager Jim Leyland said. "For whatever reason, it seems like he doesn't get the credit or notoriety he deserves. But he's one helluva player. He just goes about his business. I've talked with [Marlins manager] Don Mattingly about him. Everyone I've spoken with says what a wonderful guy he is. I'm really looking forward to being around him."

But there's bittersweetness in Yelich's selection to the national team, too. As he mused about the WBC while at Marlins Park throughout the year, he imagined playing alongside close friend and Marlins teammate , who died in a boating accident on Sept. 25.

Fernandez was 15 when he first set foot in the United States, on his fourth attempt to defect from Cuba. On the day he became a U.S. citizen in 2015, Fernandez told The Associated Press, "It's an honor to be a part of this country, and I respect it so much."

When Yelich was asked how often he's thought about Fernandez this offseason, he replied, "A lot."

"It sticks with you every day," Yelich said. "It's still fresh. That game [against Colombia] will be one of the first games played in that ballpark in 2017. You think about all the stuff he had to go through to get to this country, how special it was for him to become a U.S. citizen. He would've loved to represent the U.S. in this tournament. Knowing him and his attitude, he would have been lobbying to pitch in this thing. Playing for Team USA is a way for me to honor his memory, too.

"[Fernandez's death] changes the way you look at things. You realize how fast this can be taken away. When an opportunity like this comes along, you know you have to jump on it. You need to enjoy baseball and all the experiences baseball has to offer. You see one of the best pitchers in the game taken too soon, and it changes you as a person and a player. No one had more fun playing baseball than Jose. I know I'm going to enjoy playing baseball a lot more. You see how serious it gets during the season. It turns into a grind. But we have to remember how fortunate we are."

Yelich's Twitter avatar (@ChristianYelich) is a photograph of and Yelich embracing on Sept. 26, when the Marlins played their first game after Fernandez's death. They are both wearing Fernandez's No. 16, as all Marlins players did that night.

Stanton is on Team USA's provisional roster for the WBC, but his place on the team hasn't been finalized.

"It would be really special if we're able to play together," Yelich said of Stanton. "I hope he's able to do it. To have gone through that experience together last year, it brought everybody closer. It's a closer bond than anything I've ever felt in baseball."

Since long before the 2017 WBC entered Yelich's plans, representing the U.S. has meant something far more serious in his family: Christian's younger brother, Cameron, is a United States Marine, with at least one more deployment in his future.

"What he does and what he represents is way bigger than anything I'm doing," Yelich said. "He's fighting for the USA. I'm playing baseball for it. There's a big gap between those things.

"The Fort Bragg Game [in July] was really special, for the Braves and us to represent the U.S. on a baseball field in front of the troops. For me to be involved meant a lot to my family. ... It was one of my favorite baseball games that I've ever played. There was such an unbelievable atmosphere there -- just being on the base, interacting with the troops before and after the game, seeing how much they enjoyed the event. I hope it happens again. It's something every guy on the team talked about throughout the rest of the season."

Fittingly, it was before the July 3 game at Fort Bragg that Yelich experienced a breakthrough during a batting-cage session with Mattingly, then-hitting coach Barry Bonds and assistant hitting coach Frank Menechino.

"It clicked," said Yelich, who declined to reveal specifics of the change to his approach. "I was able to feel in my swing what they were explaining. It made sense. My power took off, and I was able to build on that through the season."

By the end of the year, Yelich had set new career highs in OPS (.859), home runs (21), doubles (38), and RBIs (98). He was the youngest player in the National League with at least 400 at-bats in the No. 3 spot. And Yelich batted cleanup in 29 of the Marlins' final 30 games -- an indication of how heavily the team relied upon him in his age-24 season.

Now he's playing for Team USA, in an outfield with fellow center fielders and and a lineup bursting with proven middle-of-the-order bats. Leyland doesn't need to worry about Yelich's reaction if he's slotted in the bottom third of the lineup.

"Wherever he wants to write me in is fine by me," Yelich said. "This lineup is going to be all great players. Just to get written up there among them is a huge honor. But that's going to be a tough job, to figure out where everyone's going to hit."