A Hall of Fame party is breaking out at the Classic

Pool A has some Cooperstown royalty, and they chatted with media on Tuesday

March 7th, 2023

TAICHUNG, Taiwan -- Looking up at the podium, it'd be hard to find a better full battery in baseball history.

There was the Netherlands' pitching coach, one of the best curveball artists to ever toe a rubber. He had two World Series wins, 287 victories and more than 3,700 strikeouts in 22 seasons.

And then Italy's manager -- the greatest hitting catcher in baseball history: 427 home runs, 10 Silver Sluggers and 12 All-Star Games.

Finally, the Panamanian legend -- the greatest closer of all time. Thirteen All-Star Games, five World Series rings, 652 saves and a pitch that's become synonymous with ...

"It should be an illegal pitch. Ban the cutter," Mike Piazza said, as the room laughed.

Hall of Famers Piazza (Italy's manager), Bert Blyleven (Netherlands' pitching coach) and Mariano Rivera (there to support Panama and put on a baseball clinic for a youth team) gathered in a room for a group of media to talk about what the World Baseball Classic means to them and how their countries might make it out of Pool A to Tokyo.

Rivera and Piazza have personal connections to the region. The former Yankees closer played with former big league starter Chien-Ming Wang (now Chinese Taipei's pitching coach), and spoke fondly of their time together.

"Playing with Chien-Ming Wang for so many years, it was amazing, knowing him the way he came to the big leagues from the Minor Leagues," Rivera said. "I mean, seeing the talent and how devoted he was for the game and representing his country, it was always amazing to me. I was so happy to have him as my teammate and being able to close games for him."

Piazza's connection may run even deeper.

Back in 1993, the then-Dodgers catcher went on a team Goodwill Tour to Taiwan -- playing in some exhibition games and launching some mammoth home runs. You can tell he's beloved, even still today, in the area. Everywhere he goes there seems to be a crowd and chants of his name.

"I think the tradition here in Taiwan for baseball is obviously very deep," Italy's manager said. "I mean, I remember as a kid watching Little League teams from Taiwan play in the United States in Williamsport, Pa., where I'm from, and I think since that tour, obviously the league has expanded. Several new ballparks have been built, and more foreign players have come to play here. It's made the league more attractive for American players and obviously other players from around the world, and I think Taiwan should be very proud of their support of baseball."

The three Cooperstown legends also raved about how important the Classic is for the growth of baseball. Particularly in the countries they represent.

Piazza talked about the support and social media posts about the tournament he's seen online, Rivera talked about the beauty of "countries coming together to represent the game that we love," and Blyleven -- now a four-time Classic coach -- spoke of its growth over the decades. He also didn't hide who he thought might come out victorious this year.

"There's 20 countries being represented in the WBC this year," Blyleven said. "Previously, I believe, there was only 16. So, we've added four more countries. I think baseball's worldwide now. There are so many great countries that are being represented, not only in this pool but the other three pools. I think the competition is very good. ... We thank [Taiwan] for holding this tournament here and we are looking to win it all, the Dutch team is. We're going to kick butt."

But will they kick butt? How does each team plan to kick butt? Strategy -- who you pitch one day, who you pitch another -- is also important in pool play. It's a different style than coaching or managing during a regular baseball season.

"It's pretty much all hands on deck," Piazza said. "And you need everyone to be flexible and everyone to be patient and everyone to work together. It's challenging, but I think we hopefully feel like we put the team together that can respond. But yeah, there's also a lot of luck involved as well. So it's also good to be lucky."

Blyleven hoped to rely on the Netherlands' top-notch infield defense to carry his country through to the next round. Andrelton Simmons at third, Xander Bogaerts at shortstop, Jonathan Schoop at second and Didi Gregorius at first will provide an almost impenetrable big league wall behind Dutch pitchers.

"We probably might have the best infield that any pitchers are going to pitch behind," the Zeist, Netherlands, native said. "So my big thing is throw strikes, get the ball over the plate and utilize your defense. I think the Dutch's philosophy is be aggressive. We're stubborn and we're going to continue to be stubborn."

There's also, of course, the simplest approach that any and every team would get behind.

"We have to score more runs than the other team," Blyleven said with a laugh.