The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

At the World Baseball Classic, it’s the coronation of Trea Turner

Trea Turner, left, has been outshining all the Team USA superstars at the World Baseball Classic, including Mike Trout. (Eric Espada/Getty Images)
7 min

MIAMI — Trea Turner arrived for his coronation Sunday night in a Team USA shirt with the sleeves ripped off, still wearing his game socks slid into Team USA flip-flops, carrying a can of Presidente.

He knew exactly where to go, having been required to sit for a news conference Saturday night, too. That night, he hit a go-ahead grand slam that left him jumping for joy as he headed for first, a rare burst of emotion from a player so stoic he rarely watches even the most obvious home run balls for more than a few milliseconds before dropping his head to run them out.

Sunday, he hit two more homers and drove in four more runs in the United States’ 14-2 drubbing of Cuba in a World Baseball Classic semifinal. This time, he wasn’t the savior. After all, the Americans didn’t need to be saved against Cuba on Sunday. This time, he was something else. This time, he was the brightest star on a team full of superstars. This time, he was the center of attention, the man everyone wanted to hear from — the hero, the guy.

As the Cuban national baseball team visits Miami, emotions run deep

“Early in this [tournament], me, J.T. [Realmuto] and [Kyle] Schwarber were talking about spring training numbers, and I haven’t hit a homer in spring training in like four or five years or something like that,” Turner said in response to the first of several questions about his recent tear. “So it’s kind of funny how it works out, but I don’t ask questions.”

Later in the news conference, Turner said he didn’t usually hit well at LoanDepot Park, either. He was mostly right about both things: He has, in fact, hit six spring training home runs in his career. He has a .260 career average and a .759 OPS — both well below his career averages — during the spring.

What Turner did not know about himself when he walked into that room, however, was that he had just become the first player in WBC history to drive in at least four runs in back-to-back games. He admitted he didn’t know he had just become the only American player to homer twice in a WBC game besides his Team USA hitting coach, Ken Griffey Jr.

“I can’t wait to tell him,” Turner said, when informed of that statistic. He smiled and looked down sheepishly as he answered question after question about how he, the Americans’ No. 9 hitter, had hit three homers in two key games to help Team USA reach the final.

“I don’t know any of these things,” he said. “I’m just trying to win with these guys. I think that’s why we are here. We don’t care who does what. We want to win.”

The funny thing about Turner, difficult as it is to quantify, is that he has never exactly felt like a superstar. He played like one, sure, especially in the past few seasons. He will be paid like one, too, because only a handful of players in baseball history can say they’ve signed contracts worth $300 million.

Trea Turner slides into place with the Phillies

But for any number of reasons, including his own unwillingness to call attention to himself, Turner never quite earned the same instant reverence as Bryce Harper or Juan Soto, never inspired the same awe as Manny Machado or Mookie Betts. He was never the most hyped star on the Washington Nationals or Los Angeles Dodgers. He won’t be the only MVP candidate on the Philadelphia Phillies, either. When Team USA Manager Mark DeRosa wrote out his lineups for this weekend, he wrote Turner’s name ninth.

“What a fun team where Trea Turner bats ninth,” Team USA starter Adam Wainwright said. “I tell you what.”

But teammates and opponents have long considered Turner one of the sport’s more dynamic players, even if it wasn’t immediately obvious from his stature.

“He came in at 5-foot-10, 5-11, 160 pounds. They said, ‘This guy’s going to be the shortstop.’ It was like, okay,” Carlos Rodón, Turner’s roommate at North Carolina State, said this spring. “Then you watched him play, and it was a different story. This kid can really play. He shut all of us up. Then he grew four inches. When you looked at him, you underestimated him. Then you watched the way he played, and you thought, ‘Holy crap.’”

From the archives: You can’t take your eyes off Trea Turner. Sometimes he wishes you would.

As a prospect in the San Diego Padres and Nationals systems, he was known for the speed, known as a smart player who would probably figure out how to hit for average. Some scouts wondered whether he had the arm to stick at shortstop. The Nationals tried him in center field. But he just kept getting better, more well-rounded, more complete. He had plenty of arm to stick at shortstop. He had plenty of instincts, the ability to adjust, to hit for average. Power was not a part of his arsenal — he hit 19 homers in 1,093 minor league at-bats — but it didn’t have to be.

He found a way to incorporate it anyway. By his third full season in 2018, he hit 19 homers in 740 big league plate appearances. In 2021, he hit 28 homers. Since the start of the 2020 season, only one shortstop has a higher slugging percentage than Turner — Fernando Tatis Jr., who accumulated his in almost half as many games as Turner and who will not be a shortstop in 2023.

“Trea can do it all,” said Betts, his former Dodgers teammate. “It’s kind of normal to me because I’ve gotten to see him every day for the last couple years. But I’m sure people who haven’t gotten to watch him, [the power] seems pretty new.”

Turner has never gone out of his way to make himself heard off the field. He has never been the type to point to the stands after a big home run or collect endorsement deals and commercial gigs, even in local markets. He isn’t featured on magazine covers and hasn’t been touted as the face of baseball, though many candidates for that role gleamed and faded during his MLB tenure. He doesn’t sell his own shoe model or have his own logo. And apparently, he does not replace his batting gloves very frequently, either.

Because after Turner hit a solo home run in the second inning Sunday, broadcast teams caught him throwing away his batting gloves in the dugout. He explained later that the glove had a hole in it when he started that at-bat, so he worried that one errant swing or bad foul ball would leave his palm exposed entirely. After he homered, he decided to throw the glove away so as not to risk it for next time.

Many baseball players on a hot streak mourn the breaking of a lucky bat or will not change their habits. Few would consider disposing of the batting gloves they wore throughout that streak. Turner said he once worried about that, too, during a lengthy hitting streak when he was with the Nationals.

“I went to go change my batting gloves, and I was like, ‘Man, I shouldn’t change them,’ ” Turner remembered. “Kevin Long [former Nationals and now Phillies hitting coach] said: ‘It’s not the batting gloves. Nobody cares about the batting gloves.’ ”

The funny thing is, because Turner homered again with a new pair, everyone seemed to care about the batting gloves Sunday. Superstars have a way of turning banality into legend.