PHOENIX — “That kind of talent, you make one mistake and he makes you pay.”
Those were the words of Colombia manager Jolbert Cabrera on Monday afternoon. He had just seen Harry Ford, the Seattle Mariners top prospect, rocket a solo shot deep into left field at Chase Field, to put Great Britain up three runs in a game they had to have to stay alive for the next round of the World Baseball Classic.
Afterward, as is tradition — and by tradition, we mean new things for the heck of it since they’ve never qualified before — he was given a crown and cape on his way back into the dugout, and “knighted” by a teammate. A great bit by modern baseball standards, the team made up mostly of Carribean players is led by a player who was still technically a teenager a month ago. He’s the youngest player to go yard in the WBC.
But for a team that’s got reasonably modest expectations at this tournament and thus made having fun a priority, Ford is all business. So much so that even coming into the tournament, his team knew one thing: Ford would be calling his own pitches, a reasonably remarkable feat for a kid with so little professional experience.
“If you watch how he goes about his business, and then someone tells you his age, they are incongruent. It doesn’t make sense,” Great Britain’s manager Drew Spencer said before their 7-5 win over Colombia on Monday. “He pulled up from Mariners camp, I think by the time he packed up and got across to our place, it was well into the night, and he showed up and he’s like, ‘Where are the books?’ He wanted to sit down with the pitching coaches and go hitter by hitter, USA and Canada. Two nights before we played him. He wanted to go through and do the work.”
As the 12th overall pick in the 2021 draft, his talent as a catcher is obvious. But beyond just raw skills, he’s definitely got a sense for the dramatic, too. After all, his name is Harrison Ford.
His teammates love the youngster.
“He’s just a well-rounded person. I mean, he picks us up, he is our spark plug, you know what I mean? So, I love playing with Harry,” said D’Shawn Knowles, who plays for the Tri-City Dust Devils, Triple-A affiliate of the Los Angeles Angels. “We’re in Germany [for WBC qualifiers] and we was down 4-0 in the first inning. And I came into the dugout, I was like, ‘Damn, bro, we’re about to lose this game.’ And he is, like, he taught me, and he was like, ‘Shawn, I got this. I got this.’ Boom, leadoff home run. And I was like, oh, OK. That’s when I knew Harry was, like, that for real. He’s him.”
It isn’t just the youthful exuberance and sky-high ceiling that makes him important to this Great Britain team, which made it to its first WBC this year via a walk-off against Spain, a game Ford also homered in. As the guy behind the dish, his time with the pitching staff is clearly vital. With roster construction being what it is, we’re not talking about your normal battery relationship.
“Maybe not as many of the bullets in the pitching staff there as we have here, but still, you still have guys like Vance [Worley]. And guys like, Michael Roth [former college baseball Golden Spikes semifinalist and professional pitcher] were on that staff, I wish he was with us now, but that have high expectations, [but] they’re not blowing anybody away anymore,” Spencer explained. “So, they need somebody who can think with them and understand how to utilize them and understand the game plan. And those guys coming back, we were all just like, ‘Wow.’ ”
“It’s good to know that he’s got a f—ing good idea of what he’s doing,” teammate Graham Spraker said of Ford after Monday’s game, where he threw 2.2 innings, giving up one hit and striking out one to record the win.
Another teammate, Michael Peterson, who threw earlier in the week, knows how useful an excellent catcher can be to a guy on the mound.
“You don’t see too many young guys who have the mental capacity to be able to deal with not only many pitchers in their staff, but also coming to this where he’s known us for … shoot, a week,” Peterson said. “And being able to figure out guys’ pitches, what they like to do, being able to frame and move our work with the movement.
“This thing [tournament] moves quick, so he just picked it up really fast. I think that goes to, again, he’s a smart kid. He figures it out and his skill, his hands are quick. So if something runs, he can go out there and get it. It’s impressive.”
For whatever other people want the WBC to be from an entertainment standpoint, it’s a gold mine of a showcase for up-and-coming players all over the globe. The baseball universe is so much bigger and better when the globe is involved. Just ask anyone in Taiwan or Miami who’s been to a WBC game.
Sure, the format might not be absolutely perfect, and, yes, teams might not have their country’s “best,” but who cares? It’s tournament baseball, which in itself is inherently fun if you actually like the sport and aren’t just there for jingoism. You very well may be getting your first look at a future big leaguer.
Some guys are past their prime and holding on. John Axford rehabbed from Tommy John surgery, delaying his retirement, just to be able to pitch in the WBC. Others are still looking to get discovered. But for a good portion of the players suiting up for a country, the dream is very real and right in front of them.
“I cannot wait to play against him,” Knowles said excitedly during warmups of his current teammate. “Or maybe even play with him, in the big leagues.”
After the game, a reporter asked Spencer if he had any prepared remarks lest he get a call from say, the U.K. prime minister or even, gasp, the king. They still have a game to play.
As for his signal-caller behind the plate, he knows he’s got a great one on his hands.
“He’s played in six baseball games for Great Britain and he’s homered in five of them,” Spencer said with a smirk after the game that put his program on the map. “You tell me, is that good?”
It is, innit?