Great Britain’s baseball passions come together for ‘historic moment’ at WBC

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PHOENIX — His father, former NBA star Mychal Thompson, said more than once that his ambition was to become prime minister of his native Bahamas.

Why didn’t that happen?

“I’m sure if you called him right now,” Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Trayce Thompson said with a smile, “he’d give you an explanation.”

Mychal became a popular Los Angeles Lakers broadcaster after playing 12 NBA seasons and winning two championships with the Lakers. Meanwhile, Trayce, who spent many summers as a child on the island, is honoring his Bahamian roots by playing for Great Britain, a first-time World Baseball Classic qualifier that faces the United States on Saturday night in the tournament opener for both teams. He’s also honoring his father by wearing Mychal’s No. 43.

Even before leaving the Dodgers’ spring-training camp at Camelback Ranch, Trayce Thompson, who will be playing center field for Great Britain, enlisted some help for this assignment.

“One of our trainers, (physical therapist) Johnathan Erb, has been quizzing me pretty much every day on United Kingdom trivia,” Thompson said. “I’ve gotten caught up on some stuff, obviously not enough. I know the national anthem is ‘God Save the King.’ We were going over it. It’s very brief, a lot more brief than the United States anthem. I learned that fries are called chips, and chips are called crisps. I learned that. There are a few things.

“I feel vastly underprepared for Saturday, but hopefully there are a few things I can pick up on while I’m here.”

Great Britain enters Saturday’s game as huge underdogs against Team USA, a fact that is not lost on Drew Spencer, the former Dartmouth College star who manages the team. But in one of the last meaningful athletic competitions between the U.S. and England — in soccer during FIFA’s men’s World Cup last November — the underdog Americans played mighty England to a draw. Can turnabout be fair play?

“I think anything is possible,” Spencer said. “If we’re going to go back to that tournament, look at Saudi Arabia. Nobody gave them a chance (against Argentina), and they pulled a big upset. Look at Morocco, right?

“I think the beauty of team sports is that anything can happen, especially in baseball. So I think it’s entirely possible, and we’re playing it that way.”

Spencer’s ‘poetry of baseball’ path

Besides, as long shots go, the odds that Spencer would one day be here as manager are incalculable.

He was a successful advertising executive from Glendale, Calif., who was transferred to London and one day went looking for a place his son Malakai could play on a T-ball team. They arrived at a big soccer complex where baseball diamonds were spray-painted on the fields, with X’s marked where the bases should be placed and without pitcher’s mounds.

“I showed up with my newspaper, my foldout camping chair, and I was just going to let him experience the game,” Spencer said. “And the guy who was coach of the T-ball team, he addressed all the parents and said, ‘I got to admit I haven’t got a clue what I was doing.’”

Spencer took off his glasses, folded up his chair, walked over to the registration desk and told folks there he used to play college baseball. “I’ll do whatever you need,” he said. They handed him a bag of gear and told him he was the new coach.

Basically, that hasn’t stopped. His son kept playing, and Spencer kept coaching.

“There was another club across town that also had adults — the London Mets,” Spencer said. “When he got to the right age, Malakai said, ‘Dad, I want to be a London Met.’ Because that’s where all the kids that are serious about baseball go.

“I reached out to the guys organizing it and said, ‘Hey, I don’t have to do this, but you kind of have a package deal here. If you don’t need me, that’s great. But I’m guessing you’re probably going to need some help.’”

Malakai played. His father coached. The Mets eventually needed a manager. When no one else surfaced, Spencer took the job and won three straight titles in the British National League.

“And then Great Britain called,” Spencer recalled, “and said, ‘We have an opening at the under-23 level. Would you be interested?’”

His son left baseball behind and went off to college at the University of Santa Clara. Spencer kept coaching, finishing fifth with the Under-23s in the 2019 European Championship. When Lewis Carroll resigned as manager of the national team, Spencer got the call, while keeping his day job at Adam&Eve/DDB, the most successful advertising startup in British history.

Who could have ever imagined that he’d be sitting here in a dugout, saying hello for the first time in 30 years to his legendary Glendale High coach Bob Cooper and getting his team ready for the WBC?

“No rational person could, right?” Spencer said. “But what is this game if it isn’t, ‘Dream big, anything can happen.’ That’s what we tell players. That’s the poetry of baseball, isn’t it?

“Sometimes I say to people, ‘I can’t believe this is happening.’ That’s what I just said to Coop. He said, ‘Believe it, of course.’”

Harrison Ford … the top prospect

And so it was, on this sun-splashed morning, that Spencer introduced himself for the first time to Thompson, one of seven Bahamians on the roster who can trace their roots back to Great Britain. That includes catcher Harrison Ford, the Seattle Mariners’ top prospect who, as a 19-year-old last fall, helped propel the Brits through the WBC qualifying round in Regensburg, Germany. He hit .455 with three home runs and eight RBIs in three games.

“Are we talking about Han Solo or the baseball player?” Spencer joked.

“You’re not going to come across many 19-year-olds with maturity, comfortable under pressure, (who’s) the spark plug for the team, humble and kind,” he added. “And you want to talk about an origin story? He got to play baseball last September in front of his 81-year-old grandmother for the first time.

“His mom and dad are both from London, and his grandmother, they all came to Germany (for the qualifier). She lives in England, and she knows she has this grandson who plays this thing called baseball in America, and he’s apparently pretty good and it’s gotten him a decent amount of money, and she got to see him.”

Ford played for Seattle’s Class-A team in Modesto last summer and wound up here after a chance conversation in spring training a year ago with Brad Marcelino, the Mariners’ Triple-A hitting coach. Marcelino was born in Sussex, England. His father Oscar, who was originally from the Philippines, starred for Great Britain, and his son followed.

“I played (soccer), too,” Marcelino said. “But after school, my friends went to play footy, and my dad took me to the park to train in baseball. He has videos of me ever since I was 3.”

He casually mentioned his background to Ford one day in camp.

“Harry said, ‘Oh, that’s cool.’ My dad and my family, they were born in the U.K.’ — I had no clue,” Marcelino said. “I said, ‘Did you just say your dad was born in the U.K.? Dude, listen to me.’”

Ford is not big — he’s listed as 5-foot-10 and 200 pounds — but he runs exceptionally well, especially for a catcher, and has a powerful arm.

“Special,” Marcelino said. “He just turned 20. You watch him and you work with him, it’s just electric. I feel he could play a majority of positions on the field. He can run, he has power, he’s obviously young and we (the Mariners) are developing him, but the skill set is phenomenal.

“And not only that, just his maturity. He has a notebook that he takes around with him, and he has these conversations with Ichiro (Suzuki) and Dan Wilson and Mike Cameron of the Mariners staff, and he’s asking questions of Trayce Thompson today. It’s like his Bible. He writes everything down.”

Marcelino was 17 when he first played for the national team in 1999 in Parma, Italy. He remembers having to tape numbers onto practice jerseys and being thrilled just to be given a free T-shirt and hat.

When Great Britain finally qualified last fall, he was overcome with emotion.

“I cried for 15 minutes,” he said.

Thompson’s Bahamas connection

Thompson has thought about wearing the Union Jack since the team reached out to him in 2020 for the qualifier, which was cancelled because of the pandemic.

“That planted the seed in my mind,” he said. “I just felt like the stars aligned for this in this particular year, and we’re playing down the street in Chase (Field). I feel after last year with the Dodgers and coming back with the Dodgers, honestly if anything, I think it’s going to help me prepare for the season. It’s going to be higher-intensity games against good competition.

“It’s special for me to connect with these other Bahamians. A lot of these guys, I knew their names. It’s good to be able to put a face to the names.

“I’ve heard a lot about Harry, so to be around him and watch him do his thing will be cool.”

But it’s not just about the Bahamians, Thompson said.

“I’ve seen some of these guys throughout my journey in baseball, so it’s definitely interesting,” he said. “I mean, I’m sure a lot of these guys want to play in the big leagues. It’s kind of cool for all of us to come together as a unit and try to compete against some of the best countries in the world when it comes to baseball.”

It all begins Saturday night, when the Brits will hear King Charles serenaded, then face Adam Wainwright of Team USA.

“As we talked about, I couldn’t have fathomed this. And yet here it is,” Spencer said. “And I think about the number of people who have entrusted me with this opportunity, whether it’s the federation or the coaching staff, all of whom stayed with me when their previous boss moved on. They all said, ‘I’m bought in and believe in you.’ And all these players who make the choice to come and play in this program that I have the privilege of running, right?

“So to be the guy that gets to lead us into this historic moment is a privilege, and I’ll never forget that.”

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