3/3/2013 5:09 P.M. ET
Mariners set to depart for Classic duties
By Spencer Fordin / MLB.com
PEORIA, Ariz. -- For weeks, they've been working toward the same goal. Now, their paths diverge.
Michael Saunders, Alex Liddi and Oliver Perez were teammates Sunday morning, but they parted ways after Seattle's game in order to join their respective sides in the World Baseball Classic.
Liddi, the first Italian-born player to make it to the Major Leagues, and Perez, a Mexican-born MLB veteran, have both been in this position before. But it's new for Saunders, and the outfielder said Saturday that he's looking forward to joining his Canadian brethren and putting on a show.
"I'm real excited," said Saunders, a native of Victoria, British Columbia. "I'm a Mariner first before I'm playing for Team Canada. I made sure our general manager and our manager were OK with it, and they gave me the go-ahead. They supported me and really pushed me to do it.
"And any chance you get to represent your country, it's really special. I took this opportunity, and I wasn't able to in 2009. The [Classic] is something I've always wanted to participate in."
Saunders was just 22 the last time the World Baseball Classic was held, and he made his big league debut later that season. The left-handed hitter has spent the last few seasons establishing himself as a Major League player, and he'll get a chance to show his progress on an international stage this week.
Jason Bay, Saunders' teammate and countryman, played in the first two World Baseball Classics but is sitting this one out. Bay, another British Columbia native, said Saunders can learn a lot from playing in that type of tourney and measuring himself against the best players from around the world.
"He and I talked about it, and he was kind of disappointed he didn't get to do it the last go-round," said Bay. "It's something that I've done the last two times, and it's something that you can't really replicate. Especially early on in the season. Some of the games really have a playoff-type atmosphere. It's pretty cool. I'm sure a lot of people say there's no perfect time for it or that it's a little too early to have that type of game, but ultimately, for a lot of people, it could be one of the highlights of their career."
Liddi, born in Sanremo, Italy, can appreciate the game's international air more than most. Liddi signed with the Mariners when he was just 17 years old, and he's slowly worked his way up the ladder. There were no Italian ballplayers to look up to when he grew up, unless you count Italian-Americans.
Now, at 24, Liddi has a full Minor League resume and a brief bit of experience in the Majors. Despite his journey -- or perhaps because of it -- he'll always cherish playing in the World Baseball Classic.
"It doesn't take anything away from the big leagues, but playing for your country is really special," said Liddi. "Maybe for guys from the states -- guys that have a lot of time in the big leagues -- it's different. For me, it's the beginning of my career. It's something I've hoped for my entire life, to play for my country. Even if we don't have a lot of at-bats, we're still going to go out there and play hard."
Saunders addressed that part of the tournament too, saying that it's a little unorthodox to be playing in games that matter so early in the spring. Saunders said he didn't play in a Spring Training game until February 28 last year, but he was able to get his timing and his legs underneath him.
The Mariners have big plans for Saunders this season, and he said that he doesn't think it will hurt him to be away from the team for the next week or two. Saunders worked hard to be ready for Spring Training this winter, and he's not going to take anything for granted along the way.
"You can't get comfortable. Comfort is for retirement," he said. "You never get complacent and you can't ever feel like you've arrived. Even as a 15-year vet, someone is trying to take your job. That's the way I look at it, and that's what pushes me to work hard in the offseason to make sure I'm ready."
Italy will kick off Pool D play on Thursday against Mexico, pitting Liddi against Perez. Liddi and Saunders will square off Friday, when Canada plays Italy for the first time. And finally, Saunders and Perez will be in opposing dugouts on March 9 when Canada takes on Mexico.
Seattle manager Eric Wedge undoubtedly has some of those games circled on his calendar, and he said the Mariners can use the week-long absence to evaluate some other players.
"We knew that was going to happen and we're only losing three of them," said Wedge. "It's a great opportunity for them and we welcome that. We support that and we wish them the best."
Perez, the most accomplished player of the trio, has won 15 games in a big league season and has pitched in the playoffs. But now, as a reliever, his career is taking on a new arc. Perez, 31 years old, is ready to reinvent himself on the mound but will never forget where he came from.
"We wanted to play outside of Mexico, and it's very exciting because all your family, all your friends and all your country supports you. They're with you and they want you to do the best," he said of pitching for Team Mexico. "That's one of those moments you're never going to forget. That's why any athlete wants to represent their country. When you go to the Olympics or this kind of tournament, you forget about everything. You just want to win in that moment and try to win for your country."
It won't be easy for Canada, Mexico or Italy, because the fourth team in Pool D is the United States and only two teams will advance to the next stage. If they're eliminated quickly, the players could be back in camp next week, and everyone in Seatle's clubhouse has their own rooting interest.
"I'm definitely rooting for them. Don't get me wrong," said Bay of Canada. "The last couple times, we've been in the same bracket. I don't know what the numbers are for Major League Canadians or Major Leaguers of Mexican descent, but they have a good team and obviously so does the United States. Even if they don't get their top 20 guys to play, the rest of the guys are accomplished. I'm definitely rooting for Canada. I've been in that pool before and I know it's going to be a challenge."
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.