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WORLD BASEBALL CLASSIC

Mexico's coaches have big resumes

The staff features Manager Vinny Castilla and former Dodgers great Fernando Valenzuela.

March 15, 2009|Kevin Baxter

SAN DIEGO — Halfway through the Mexican national team's morning workout Saturday, a man slowly wheeled a cart full of baseballs toward the middle of the infield.

Not every team has the luxury of using a 17-year major league veteran and Cy Young Award winner to keep its batting practice pitcher supplied with balls. But in this case, Fernando Valenzuela was only too eager to oblige.

"Whatever they need," Valenzuela said. "I'm real, real happy to be part of this."

This, of course, is the World Baseball Classic, where Mexico will meet South Korea tonight at 8 in San Diego's Petco Park. In the first game of the double-elimination quarterfinal round, Cuba squares off against Japan and right-hander Daisuke Matsuzaka in a 1 p.m. rematch of the 2006 WBC championship game.

And for Valenzuela, whose 173 major league wins are the most by a Mexican pitcher, the tournament gives him an opportunity to do something he never got to do as a player: wear his country's uniform in a truly international competition.

"It's hard to explain," said Valenzuela, who earned 141 of his wins -- along with his Cy Young and a rookie-of-the-year award -- during 11 seasons with the Dodgers. "It's proud to be representing your country."

Even if the honor comes without a clear job description.

As one of three pitching coaches on Manager Vinny Castilla's six-man staff, Valenzuela's official duty during games is to count pitches for head pitching coach Teddy Higuera. In practice, however, he does much more.

"My job over here, or my part on the team, is if somebody's needing help or if somebody's asking for something, I'm happy to answer," said Valenzuela, who was also a coach for Mexico in the inaugural WBC three years ago. "I don't like to approach the young players and say 'Hey, why don't you do this or that?' Because they have their own programs. But when anybody needs a little help, I try to help them out."

Valenzuela isn't the only one in Mexico's dugout with an impressive big league resume. Higuera and Castilla, whose 320 home runs are the most by a Mexican, are former All-Stars and the other four coaches also played in the majors. And that hardly makes Mexico unique. Of the 16 WBC teams, only Taiwan, Japan, Korea and Cuba do not have former major league players on their staffs.

Some of those jobs were easier to come by than others. South Africa, which has never won a WBC game, much less produce a major league player, had seven-time All-Star Lee Smith as its pitching coach, for example. And Italy's staff had ex-Dodger Mike Piazza as well as former big league managers Tom Trebelhorn and Mike Hargrove

Hargrove's qualifications to wear the Italian uniform?

"I know how to spell lasagna," he joked.

Joking aside, however, having that much star power -- and the ego that often accompanies it -- on one staff can be problematic. In Mexico's case, however, Castilla sees it as a positive.

"We have [this] coaching staff because all these guys have been great players," said Castilla, whose brain trust includes first base coach and former Angels broadcaster Jose Tolentino, who played in the majors for four teams. "They know how to transmit it to the players, and that's why they're here. There's a great atmosphere in the clubhouse. We get along great and we help each other."

Valenzuela agrees.

"There's only one purpose: to put the team together and be a winner," he said. "Everybody is different. But we're here for only one purpose, one reason, to . . . win games."

Yet, as much as Valenzuela says he's enjoying his coaching stint, it's not a job the Dodgers' Spanish-language broadcaster would like on a full-time basis.

"No thank you," Valenzuela answered without hesitation. "You have to be patient. Learn how to approach the players. It's not easy.

"I like to stay in the press box. Watching games, talking a little bit about the games. I think that's better."

--

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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