World Baseball Classic players return to hometown

Team Italy and Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo walks off the field following World Baseball Classic workouts at Marlins Park. // Photo by Christina De Nicola

Team Italy and Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo walks off the field following World Baseball Classic workouts at Marlins Park. // Photo by Christina De Nicola

MIAMI — Seven seats.

That’s how far away Florida Marlins third baseman Bobby Bonilla’s seventh-inning home run in Game 7 of the 1997 World Series landed from Eric Hosmer.

Hosmer, now a first baseman for Team USA and the Kansas City Royals, grew up watching games at Pro Player Stadium.

Jack McKeon’s son was a good friend of his father, so they would attend games whenever the Cincinnati Reds came to town. When McKeon took over as manager of the Marlins in 2003, they checked out even more games.

The 23-year-old is one of several local boys back home to participate this week in the second round of the World Baseball Classic at Marlins Park.

“My uncle took me to that game and I think this is going to be pretty similar to that,” said Hosmer, who attended American Heritage in Plantation. “The atmosphere is obviously not as much as a World Series, but if there’s anything a close second this is it. It’s been a great experience for me so far.”

For Hosmer, it’s a rare chance to play in front of family and friends. Each year he waits for the release of the Major League Baseball schedule, hoping his American League team will visit the Marlins in Interleague play.

In two big league seasons, he has 33 home runs and 138 RBIs in 280 games. In 2011, Hosmer finished third in AL Rookie of the Year voting.

“When I got the call being asked to play on this team it’s the first thing I thought about is making it back here,” said Hosmer, who first played for Team USA in high school. “To now finally be here and enjoy the game – and of all things [at] the World Baseball Classic – for all my family and friends to come watch, it’s really a dream come true for me.”

Another young South Floridian breaking into the Majors — Team Italy and Chicago Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo — starred at Stoneman Douglas in Parkland, Fla.

After just 49 at-bats with the San Diego Padres in 2011, the Cubs acquired the top-rated first base prospect in a trade for pitcher Andrew Cashner and a Minor League outfielder. Last year, he went .285 with 15 homers and 48 RBIs in 87 games.

Rizzo, 23, remembers visiting Pro Player Stadium with his dad and brother to see Chipper Jones and the Atlanta Braves face the host Marlins.

He hadn’t yet been called up by the Cubs from Triple-A Iowa and didn’t make Chicago’s trip to Marlins Park last season.

“It’s very South Beach,” Rizzo said of the park. “This is Miami. This is the definition of Miami. It’s a beautiful stadium.”

Team USA and Washington Nationals pitcher Gio Gonzalez (@GioGonzalez47) finished third in National League Cy Young Award voting last year in his first season with the Washington Nationals. He held a 21-8 record with a 2.89 ERA in 32 starts, striking out 207 batters in 199 1/3 innings.

The 27-year-old left-hander went to Hialeah High School for three years and closed out his amateur career at Monsignor Pace. The University of Miami offered him a full scholarship before the Chicago White Sox selected him 38th overall in the 2004 MLB Amateur Draft.

While his American teammates came back to beat Team Canada to advance to the second round of the WBC, Gonzalez watched the game with a couple of childhood friends at a local Flanigan’s where he went unnoticed by customers.

Gonzalez will start against Team Puerto Rico at 8 p.m. ET Tuesday.

“Could you imagine?,” said Gonzalez, a two-time All-Star. “You’re a kid from Hialeah and you’re pitching and representing your country for Team USA. You’re in the second round and you’re pitching at home in Miami. You couldn’t script it any better. It’s almost like a Cinderella story.”

The three agree that the talent pool in South Florida — from Palm Beach to Miami-Dade County — brought a competitiveness that prepared them for the challenges of the big leagues. Hosmer joked that he recognized half the guys playing Minor League baseball.

In their return home, they hope the World Baseball Classic puts on a show for the city, while also promoting the sport.

“I always give back to my community and try to spend as much time with the kids and especially open the doors for the next generation that’s going to be representing us,” Gonzalez said. “If I can be the guy that has the key to open the door for the next generation I want to be that guy to represent them in the best way possible.”

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