The independent Frontier League isn’t just a long way from the majors. It’s a long way from Tokyo.
“Honestly, the intensity, the pride of knowing you’re playing for your country,” Frazier said in a recent conversation, “I wish everybody could experience it.”
Here’s something you might not know about the upcoming, delayed-by-the-pandemic Tokyo Olympics: They include baseball, a sport that hasn’t been played at the Games since 2008, a sport that won’t send all of its best players to Japan, what with the major league season rolling right along.
Until last month, Frazier didn’t know he would be a part of all this, and he certainly didn’t know he would be playing twice a week with the Miners, trying to maintain his fitness and his swing. Shoot, until last month, the United States hadn’t even qualified. Now, though, Team USA is in by virtue of winning something called the — get this — 2021 World Baseball Softball Confederation Baseball Americas Qualifier, an eight-nation tournament held at spring training complexes in Port St. Lucie and West Palm Beach, Fla.
“We’re not only excited to be there,” Frazier said, “we know gold is our goal. Something short of that would be disappointing.”
Before thinking about the possibilities, let’s go over how we got here. Because Major League Baseball does not put its season on hold for the Olympics — a discussion for another day — USA Baseball, the national governing body entrusted with assembling a team, has to sift through the best players who not only aren’t in the big leagues but also aren’t even on 40-man rosters. That leaves it without not only Mike Trout and Max Scherzer but also the minor leaguers who are closest to the majors. Translation: Team USA, whose official roster hasn’t been announced, will be some combination of has-beens and might-never-bes.
That’s how Frazier got involved. Fifteen years ago, he appeared for Team USA in the World University Championships while still at Rutgers, then four years later at another international tournament when he was still in the Cincinnati Reds’ minor league system. More than almost any 35-year-old veteran of 11 major league seasons, competing internationally is kind of hard-wired into Frazier’s being. When he was 12, his Toms River team won the Little League World Series. Frazier’s contributions in the championship game victory over Japan: going 4 for 4 and being the winning pitcher.
So when Frazier went to spring training with the Pirates — on a minor league deal, with no guarantees — he had already spoken with Paul Seiler, USA Baseball’s executive director and CEO. Seiler’s message: “Keep us in mind.” When Frazier didn’t make the team out of spring training, Seiler called within the hour: “You’re our number one pick.” After the Pirates asked him back, then cut him after 13 games, Seiler was back on the phone: “Let’s go.”
From there, things got hectic. Frazier flew to Florida to work out with the men who could be his teammates — outfielder Matt Kemp, a veteran of 15 big league seasons; pitcher Homer Bailey, his old teammate with the Reds; Marc Rzepczynski, a reliever for 10 seasons; David Robertson, once a closer with the Chicago White Sox, New York Yankees and Philadelphia Phillies. Mike Scioscia, a World Series winner in his 19 years with the Angels, served as manager. They played five-inning games against the New York Mets’ minor leaguers. They worked out the kinks. And they prepared to face Nicaragua in an opener.
“Playing for your country, I got some of the younger guys around in a circle, like in high school, getting them fired up,” Frazier said. “Then the first game, there were probably 80 percent Nicaragua fans there. That’s fine. We build off that.”
The Americans won all four games they played. In the 4-2 victory over Venezuela that clinched the berth in Tokyo, Frazier went 4 for 4 with two doubles and a homer. The winning pitcher: Edwin Jackson, who counts the Washington Nationals as one of the 14 major league teams for which he played during a 17-year career.
“The way everybody came out and played and knew their role — 26 guys, from the top guy to the last guy — it was awesome,” Frazier said. “Then after the game, you’re back at the hotel, sitting by the pool, sharing a few pops, playing some cards — it was just a great time.”
What awaits now are the Games. In the five Olympics in which baseball was a medal sport — from Barcelona in 1992 to Beijing in 2008 — the United States won gold once, in 2000 in Sydney, and has just two other medals, both bronze. The sport has an uneasy relationship with the Olympics. It’s reappearing because Japan, as the host country, can recommend sports it would like to stage — and the Japanese will pursue gold in baseball as fervently as in any sport, pausing the elite Nippon Professional Baseball league to accommodate the Games. But baseball is not due to be on the Olympic program by the Paris Games of 2024.
To the players on the U.S. team now, none of that matters. Ahead is not only Japan but South Korea, Mexico, Israel and another qualifier (the Dominican Republic, Venezuela or the Netherlands). What matters is that chance at gold.
“At the end of the day, you’re repping USA on your chest, and there’s nothing like it,” Frazier said. “What people do for our country — fighting wars, risking their lives every day — I want to try and represent them really well. I’m playing for them. Not many people can say they’re playing for the people who fight for our country. They’re playing for their family or their city or their team. This is different. I can’t wait.”