Pestano is Honored and Humbled to be Selected to Team USA
By Mike Brandyberry
Children have skipped school or ditched class in the spirit and love of baseball for generations. However, it isn’t often that a college student is inspired to skip classes in the name of the game and patriotism.
“In college, the first (World Baseball Classic) team for the USA practiced at our field,” said Vinnie Pestano, a Cleveland Indians relief pitcher who attended California State University – Fullerton. “I remember skipping class with a couple teammates to watch them practice and take BP. I never thought I would get a chance to be a part of something like this. You have so many hurdles and obstacles in your way at that time just to get to the Major Leagues, let alone play for a team of that caliber.”
In 2006, Pestano was a 21-year-old closer for Cal State – Fullerton, ditching class to watch Derek Jeter, Chipper Jones and Roger Clemens work out and prepare for the biggest international baseball tournament in the world. Today, Pestano is 27-year-old relief pitcher selected to the same team he once envied.
He was announced officially this morning as a member of Team USA in the World Baseball Classic (WBC). Pestano will join Indians’ teammate Chris Perez, along with Ryan Bruan, Adam Jones, Ryan Vogelsong, R.A. Dickey and others as members of the American team slated to compete in March in the 16-team international tournament.
“All my life I have waited for the opportunity to play for my country,” Pestano said. “You watch the Olympics your entire life hoping one day you will be able to represent your country and to be a part of something like that. This isn’t the Olympics, but it is baseball’s version, and I’m extremely honored to say I am going to get the chance to represent my country.”
Baseball was an Olympic exhibition then full medal sport from 1984 to 2008. But the International Olympic Committee (IOC) discontinued baseball from the games prior to 2012, partially because of the WBC’s debut in 2006. The Olympic Games originally were for amateurs, then professionals, but never had the support or blessing of Major League Baseball. With the Olympics in the middle of the MLB season, the best players in the game were unable to participate. However, the WBC games are in March, during Spring Training, giving players and teams more flexibility.
Pestano had interest in being a member of Team USA for some time, dating back to last season when the Players’ Association asked players to complete a questionnaire briefly stating any interest and what countries a player might want to play for.
“I had heard after the season I was on a list of possibilities, but that list had to become a much shorter one,” Pestano said. “I paid close attention to it this winter, and had my agent check in from time to time to try and see what my chances were.”
Pestano has been the Tribe’s eighth inning setup man the previous two seasons, setting up save situations for Perez and occasionally closing games. He was 3-3, with a 2.57 ERA in 2012 with the Indians, including 76 strikeouts and 2 saves in 70 innings pitched.
Around the Winter Meetings in early December, Pestano and his agent learned that the team would be announced on Jan. 17, but that he would receive a phone call from Team USA manager Joe Torre if he were selected. No timetable was given to when he should expect a call, making the wait all the more excruciating and nerve-wracking.
“I waited close to six weeks for a phone call I was sure would never come,” Pestano said. “Then on (Jan.) 12, the phone rang and the voice on the other end was Torre’s, and he was inviting me to play for my country. Other than being told I was going up (to the big leagues), that’s the best phone call of my career.”
Pestano and Perez will pitch for Team USA, while fellow Indians Asdrubal Cabrera will play for Venezuela and Mike Aviles will play for Puerto Rico and Carlos Santana will represent the Dominican Republic. Major League teams have different views and levels of support of the WBC — fearing their players will be misused or injured during the event — but the Indians have supported Pestano and his pursuit to represent the USA.
He feels his preparation before officially reporting to Spring Training and still having time with the Indians and its personnel early in camp will prepare him for the WBC competition and the Tribe’s 162-game schedule.
“The Indians have been very supportive,” Pestano said. “I try to come into camp as game ready as possible, and every rep I take off the mound is a game rep. There is no taking it easy and getting used to things. If anything, I over-throw early, because adrenaline plays a part also, which is why 10 (pitches) in the pen are never the same as 10 (pitches) in a game.”
Pestano resides in Goodyear, Ariz., and works out at the Indians’ facilities regularly. He and fellow Team USA players will work out at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick in Phoenix beginning the first week of March. The American’s first game is slated for March 8 at Chase Field against Mexico. The Championship Game of the tournament is March 19 at AT&T Park in San Francisco.
“My hope is since our spring games start Feb. 22, I will have four or five appearances before even meeting with the WBC team and progress from there,” Pestano said. “If you look at the schedule, the games only last about 10-11 days with travel days included, so the time missed from the team will be minimal considering the magnitude of the tournament.”
It is quite an honor and accomplishment for a pitcher who was ditching class just seven years ago to watch the U.S. squad practice.
“To think that when I grip that ball, I’m not just pitching for my team or Cleveland fans but for the United States of America … that opportunity I will take any way I can get it,” Pestano said.
Photo: Jeff Curry/Getty Images