Willie Randolph stares intensely at a group of relaxed USA Baseball roster members stretching in a patch of grass near their first-base dugout, the fire in his eyes complementing his team's calm demeanor. His roster is a diverse one with players from all sorts of backgrounds -- few household names but many aspiring to become one. Just yards away, a man who has been the talk of the baseball world in recent days takes hacks at home plate. South Korean slugger Byung-ho Park sprays line drives all over Tianmu International Baseball Stadium in Taiwan, pummeling the outfield wall and threatening the video board that towers over left field.
Team USA is a long way from the States, but Randolph and his team feel right at home.
Getting the call
For every member of USA Baseball's roster in the inaugural Premier 12 tournament -- a competition uniting the top 12 national programs across the globe for 14 days in Taiwan and Japan -- it all started with a phone call.
"I got a call from [USA Baseball administrator] Joe Garagiola about a month or so ago," Randolph said.
"My agent gave me a call along with [White Sox director of player development Nick Capra] and [White Sox vice president/assistant general manager] Buddy Bell," Chicago's No. 10 prospect Jacob May explained.
"A couple days before I went out to the [Arizona] Fall League, I get a call from Paul Seiler, the CEO of USA Baseball," No. 2 Brewers prospect Brett Phillips echoed.
USA Baseball, the governing body of national teams from youth to the professional level, quickly assembled a roster for this first edition of the Premier 12 shortly after the close of the Minor League season. The tournament's first round and quarterfinals took place at four ballparks in Taiwan before shifting to Japan for the semifinals and medal round, and on Saturday in Tokyo, that diverse team of young prospects, Minor League veterans and free agents brought home the competition's silver medal.
The run to Japan was the culmination of a frenzied stretch that began in late summer.
"I love to compete, man," Team USA manager Randolph said from Tianmu Stadium as a boisterous contingent of fans filed in for his team's group match against Korea. "I love working with young kids. I love to represent the USA, and so to me, it was a quick 'Yes.' Then it was all about trying to put the team together. I got excited, made sure I cleared some things in my schedule with the family and all that kind of stuff. I was just pumped up from the get-go."
Randolph and USA Baseball assembled their club, which included top prospects like May, Phillips and No. 18 D-backs prospect Jake Barrett, last month. The team convened in Arizona, where it worked out for the first time on Oct. 29 and played a series of exhibition games against the Canadian national team.
"When we got down there, I was able to look them in the eye, talk to them and get the chance to feel what they were all about, get to know them a little bit. I was very pleasantly surprised," Randolph said. "They're very competitive. I think everyone here wants to be here, and that's really a big part of why we're doing this, because it's about pride. It's playing baseball because you love the game, but really, ultimately, it's about wanting to represent and have pride in your country. There was no doubt from Day 1 that the commitment was there. I saw the guys, the way they worked at it."
A large number of players on the American side had to quickly work back into game shape after a month or more off following the close of the Minor League season. A handful of players like Phillips were still in late-season form after taking part in the Arizona Fall League.
"I was going to the Fall League, so I had my mind set and eyes set on the Fall League and performing there," Phillips told MiLB.com's Show Before the Show podcast. "[Seiler] called and said the Milwaukee Brewers were OK with this opportunity for me to come over here to Taiwan and be in the Premier 12 tournament and it was up to me if I wanted to join. I was 100 percent in."
The Americans earned a win and a pair of ties with the Canadians from Oct. 31-Nov. 2 before breaking camp and heading to Taiwan for the first 10 days of the tournament.
"We were really able to take advantage of the week down there [in Arizona]," Randolph said. "The weather was great. We were able to get a lot of work in without overdoing it because, again, you don't want anybody to get set back because once guys go down, you can't really replace them. The coaching staff did a great job. I want to commend them. Our staff was tremendous. The players cooperated with what we wanted to do."
Pride and sacrifice
Stern tests waited in the Eastern Hemisphere where the US was part of a tough Group B that included world No. 1 Japan and No. 8 South Korea among its six teams. Where the American team was limited to players not on Major League 40-man rosters, the Japanese and Korean sides had formed all-star teams from the highest ranks in Nippon Professional Baseball and the Korea Baseball Organization.
Wearing Korea's national colors were stars like Park, who saw the Minnesota Twins win his posting fee bid while at the tournament. Japan's loaded side included right-hander Shohei Otani, a 21-year-old who touched 101 mph with his fastball in the tournament's opening game, and Kenta Maeda, an NPB veteran who could be posted and made available to Major League teams in the coming days.
The US didn't necessarily have that star power. Leading the rotation was veteran journeyman Zack Segovia and free agent righty Zeke Spruill. The biggest power bats on the US side were former Indians and Rockies prospect Matt McBride and former White Sox farmhand Dan Black, fresh off his first season in the KBO. However, the dynamic presence of talents like May and Phillips, along with productive lineup members such as the Royals' Brett Eibner and former Mets catcher Dan Rohlfing, gave Randolph and his team more than a fighting chance.
"I love young talent, man," Randolph said. "I get really excited when I see young kids who have speed because I'm a speed guy. I love being aggressive.
"Looking at these kids, I'm really proud of the way they've sacrificed and gotten together and put the team first."
Inning after inning, night after night, the impact of the team's mission made itself felt.
"There's a couple of veteran guys who have been through this before," May said. "They kind of made us aware that it was going to be a different feeling than prior experiences. They said it was something you really can't explain until you experience it. Once we got over here, you put the jerseys on and you get a sense of pride. It's awesome."
In addition to Americans with foreign experience like Black and Segovia, who pitched last season in Taiwan's Chinese Professional Baseball League, the US coaching staff included Ernie Young and Anthony Sanders, who both won gold for the United States at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
"It's a lot of unknowns, especially for these guys coming over here for international play for the first time," said Sanders, Team USA's third base coach and manager of the Rookie-level Grand Junction Rockies. "It's kind of night-and-day from what we're used to as far as the Minor Leagues, even the Major Leagues and some other places. It's just a totally different atmosphere, and I do my best to try to educate these guys before we get here. Once we get here, they know what's at stake.
"When they put that USA jersey on, if they don't have a different feeling, then something's definitely wrong with them," he said with a smile.
Phillips certainly felt that emotion.
"Getting to wear 'USA' on your chest every night, to come out here playing for the USA with the flag on your right shoulder, it's been awesome," MLB.com's No. 32 overall prospect told the podcast. "I'm so excited to be here representing the USA."
At the end of a long season that saw him dealt from Houston to Milwaukee at July's Major League trade deadline, Phillips handled himself well in Asia with a .300 average and .733 OPS in five games.
"Brett's done a nice job for me," Randolph said. "I think he's going to be a hell of a player."
The US opened its Premier 12 run with an 11-5 win over the Dominican Republic on Nov. 10 and rebounded from a 7-5 loss to Venezuela the following day with a 10-0 victory on Nov. 12 over Mexico in eight innings due to the tournament's mercy rule. After leading Japan early, the Americans fell 11-2 to the tournament favorites on Nov. 14, setting up a pivotal matchup with Korea to conclude group play one day later.
Despite coming together for the first time just a week before the tournament, the US held up its end of the deal representing the No. 2 nation in the World Baseball Softball Confederation's rankings. Furthermore, the Premier 12 gave players like May valuable innings to add on to their 2015 seasons.
"Knowing that I got injured this past season, I was pretty sure I was going to have to go somewhere," said May, who missed nearly two months after a June 2 collision with his Double-A Birmingham teammate and top White Sox prospect Tim Anderson. "I just wasn't really sure where. I got home, continued to work out, tried to stay in shape because I knew I could possibly be getting a call. It was probably a month to three weeks out when they gave me a call saying I was going to be involved in this, so I was excited. I kept swinging it, getting as much work in as I could."
The fleet-footed May served as Randolph's leadoff hitter throughout the competition and a sparkplug for the United States. In seven games, May batted .222/.364/.407 with seven runs scored, five walks and a pair of stolen bases and showed no hangover from the injury that limited his 2015 campaign in the Southern League.
"It feels really good," he said. "Obviously this is a win-now type of situation, so it's a positive experience. Anything I can do to help the team. It's been great. I've been making sure I take care of my body, getting in the gym as much as I can as far as making my legs feel good and stuff like that, staying healthy and playing the best I can."
On the night Randolph spoke with MiLB.com, his team broke through to a crucial 3-2 win over Korea in 10 innings, pushing the Americans on to the Premier 12 quarterfinals. There they handled former five-time Major League All-Star Andruw Jones and his Kingdom of the Netherlands team in a 6-1 win to earn a trip to Japan.
After a 6-1 semifinal win over an upstart world No. 12 Mexico team, the US ran out of gas in an 8-0 loss at the hands of Korea in the gold medal match. Despite the loss, the US brought home a $600,000 prize and the second-largest points share for the WBSC's 2016 world rankings. The silver medal was the US senior team's second straight after earning second place in the 2015 Pan Am Games.
Beyond the hardware, Randolph came home with an extended baseball family.
"I'm going to be looking forward to watching their progress," he said. "When I leave here, these kids have given me their time, and I'm never going to forget that. I feel like they're my team, and I'll have a relationship for as long as we're around this place. I really feel like they're my kids.
"Believe me, I'm going to be checking the box scores."
Tyler Maun is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @TylerMaun.