TAMPA — Then there were 22.
In June 2018, hundreds of the most talented high school players in the country were trying to shine enough to get asked to the USA Baseball National Training Complex in Cary, N.C. Eighty-two got the call to begin playing “Survivor” to make the 18-and-under American team. The 82 were split into four teams and played a round-robin.
“They put together an incredible group of talented, talented players who also were incredible kids,” remembered Anthony Volpe’s father, Michael. “There were good days and bad days. I really had no idea if Anthony was going to make it.”
He survived and advanced through the first cut to 43. That group was split into Team Stars and Team Stripes for games and workouts from June 25-28. When that phase was over, players returned home and waited for a call.
“You start with the best players in the country and it really is up for grabs who is going to make [the team],” said George Washington University head coach Gregg Ritchie, who was the bench coach for the U.S. 18-and-under team that year. “You have to make your mark. And day after day, event after event, game after game, Anthony kept leaving his mark.”
In August 2018, it was decided which 26 would travel to Fort Lauderdale in early November for more games and workouts. There was another cut. Then there were 22. Two more had to go to get to the final 20 who would get on the plane to Panama as Team USA to compete in the COPABE U-18 Pan American Championship.
Volpe had been a fixture with the national team. He had been on the 12-and-under national squad and the 15-and-under club. But the talent was so deep here that Gunnar Henderson, now with the Orioles and the AL Rookie of the Year favorite, and Cardinals touted prospect Masyn Winn, who had been on the U.S. 15-and-under team with Volpe, had been cut along the way.
But there is this thing about Anthony Volpe — if you invite him to try to make your team, he relentlessly makes himself impossible to cut. So when 22 became 20, Volpe remained in the hotel ballroom with Team USA.
“I just decided I didn’t want to go to Panama and I didn’t want to try to win a gold medal without Anthony Volpe,” said that team’s manager, Jack Leggett. “The passion. The energy. The talent. You just want him on your team. He made himself easy to take.”
That was the last time Volpe had to fight to make a team. Until now.
The Yankees began spring training last month with a competition for the shortstop job. There was a sense, however, that if the Yankees went with comfort they would just stick with Isiah Kiner-Falefa and if they went young it would be Oswald Peraza, who was a level ahead of Volpe in the minors and had a strong cup of major league coffee last year. Volpe, as of Friday, still isn’t even on the 40-man roster. Michael Volpe mentioned that when he and his wife and the grandfather for whom Anthony is named planned a trip at this time of year to spring training, they expected the games would be across the street at the minor league complex.
But they all were in attendance Friday at Steinbrenner Field when Volpe was leading off yet again. Peraza was on the traveling split-squad against the Orioles in Sarasota — with now utilityman Kiner-Falefa in center field. And Volpe did what he has done all spring. He looked like he belonged. He hit his third homer, a two-run blast to center off of Twins scheduled Opening Day starter Pablo Lopez.
It furthered the growing case that Volpe will be spending his Opening Day in The Bronx — playing shortstop against the Giants next Thursday. Peraza has not lost the job as much as Volpe has — day after day, event after event, game after game — left his mark.
“It’s my first camp,” Volpe said. “I don’t know how it works. It [trying to make national U.S. teams] helps me now in recognizing I have no control over [making the decision]. I am at peace with whatever happens as long as I feel like I worked hard and put my best foot forward.”
He has done that — as he did in 2018, when he was still young enough (17) that he could have repeated on the 18-and-under team the following year, too, if he had not been drafted by the Yankees. And Volpe did not just make the 2018 U.S. squad. With CJ Abrams, Corbin Carroll, Pete Crow-Armstrong, Riley Greene and Bobby Witt Jr. on the roster, Volpe hit third for a club that scored the most runs ever (131) for an U-18 National Team in an international tournament. The United States went 9-0.
“He is who he is and it is hard to explain,” Ritchie said. “You can be around people who have the hunger for baseball. Anthony is not hungering to play baseball. He is starving to play good, winning baseball.”
Said Leggett: “He stands out because of how he plays. There is no second gear. He plays hard, unselfish, team-attitude baseball. He just wants to win.”
Again, sounds familiar since the Yankees are echoing what Ritchie, Leggett and the Team USA infrastructure say about Volpe. Words like “leadership” and “humility” come up a lot. Before leaving on the tour in 2018, the U.S. team was facing an accomplished, older junior college squad, and Ritchie noticed in the first inning, after there were two outs, a few players collected their gloves. Ritchie made a point that the offensive inning isn’t over until three outs and he said he screamed, “What do we do with two outs?”
A voice rang out: “We score.” It was Volpe. It became the team’s mantra. When I asked Friday morning, “What do you do with two outs?” Volpe laughed and said: “We score.”
“He loves the game, his teammates and to win,” Ritchie said. “He has a relentless willingness to get better. And he can adapt quickly. He is just a sponge who can take information and quickly apply it. Then he wrings out the sponge and asks for more. So it does not surprise me that he has kept meeting the challenge.”
He might just make the team again.