Inspire, develop, perform: Unheralded British baseball chasing history

Great Britain pitcher Nateshon Thomas, left, and infielder Richard Klijn prepare to take batting practice during their team's workout session prior to the World Baseball Classic. Steven Ryan for ESPN

NEW YORK -- Liam Carroll probably couldn't have picked a better location for the biggest games of his coaching career.

As manager of the team representing Great Britain at this week's World Baseball Classic qualifier, Carroll and his 28-man roster have their sights set on earning the final berth in next year's 16-team WBC field. It would easily qualify as the biggest moment in the history of the British baseball program, and the fact that the event is being contested at MCU Stadium in Brooklyn carries personal significance for Carroll.

"My dad is from New York and grew up a hardcore Brooklyn Dodgers fan," Carroll said. "Jackie Robinson is his idol."

A statue of Robinson and Dodgers teammate Pee Wee Reese stands at the entrance to MCU Stadium, home of the Brooklyn Cyclones minor league team.

That said, Carroll's mother is English and he was born and raised in London. He wants nothing more than for his players to figuratively plant the Union Jack flag here in Brooklyn by earning their first trip to the WBC.

"They're thrilled to be here and very excited for the opportunity," Carroll said.

Great Britain is vying against Brazil, Israel and Pakistan for the final berth in the 16-team field for the 2017 WBC. The winner advances to face South Korea, Chinese Taipei and the Netherlands in pool play next March in Seoul.

The hope around the Great Britain program is that victory in Brooklyn will raise awareness of baseball back home and push it closer to the mainstream. It won't be easy. Israel has several players with major league experience, and Brazil qualified for the 2013 WBC.

Great Britain went 1-2 at its first WBC qualifier in September 2012. The Brits have a deeper talent pool and are better prepared this time around, and Carroll believes his team is ready to take the next step.

The British national team is coming off a disappointing ninth-place finish at the 2016 European Baseball Championship. But WBC eligibility rules, which are established by Major League Baseball, are more flexible than those for the national team. Because of that, the roster has been bolstered by American and Bahamian players with parental connections to Britain.

Four players from the British national club champion Southampton Mustangs are on the WBC qualifier roster -- pitchers Jordan Edmonds, Spencer Kreisberg, Rei Martinez and third baseman Maikel Azcuy. Martinez and Azcuy are Cuban natives who emigrated to England. Great Britain has 11 team members who played on MLB-affiliated teams this season, including three Triple-A players: catcher Chris Berset and pitchers Chris Reed and Michael Roth.

Roth is a native of Greenville, South Carolina, but qualifies because his mother is a native of Kettering, England. His maternal grandparents both served in the Royal Air Force. Roth pitched for two College World Series champions at the University of South Carolina and was a member of the Great Britain team at the 2012 WBC qualifier in Germany. This time around, he's better prepared. He has four more years of professional experience under his belt, including major league service time with the Los Angeles Angels and Texas Rangers.

"This is probably [going to be the] smallest crowd that I've played in front of this year," Roth said. "That helps because when you get up here, whether they're yelling or screaming at you -- like they were when I was at Fenway this year -- you just really focus on the catcher. You're trying to execute pitches. You're going out there and competing, and it's really between you and the batter."

Great Britain was planning to use pitcher Jacob Esch in the Brooklyn qualifier, but that changed when the right-hander was promoted from Triple-A to the Miami Marlins. Esch is a native of St. Paul, Minnesota, and attended Georgia Tech, but his mother is an England native from St Austell, Cornwall.

"We'd love to have him here, but it's huge for our program to have a British passport holder in the big leagues," Carroll said.

One British player owes a footnote to New York baseball history. Bahamian-born outfielder Antoan Richardson scored the winning run for the Yankees when Derek Jeter delivered a walk-off hit in the final home game of his career on Sept. 25, 2014.

Carroll's team preaches the adage of playing the game "the GB way" and focusing on three tenets -- inspire, develop and perform. One of the players who best embodies this belief is second baseman Richard Klijn. He grew up in the village of Cark in northwest England and began playing baseball at age 6. He has dyslexia, and baseball often provided refuge from frustrations at school. Baseball equipment was difficult to come by and proper playing fields were unheard of, but he stuck with the sport and eventually fell in love with it.

By age 16, Klijn was in camp with the Great Britain national team. At 17, he left to play in the top baseball league in Germany. He won five Bundesliga championships with Regensburg Legionaere before joining the Haar Disciples club in suburban Munich in 2015. Now 26, he badly wants to help Great Britain advance to the WBC.

"I think we've done a good job of getting everyone together real fast and getting everyone to know each other," Klijn said. "We're confident, and we're feeling very good right now. I think we've got a great chance against all three teams."

Great Britain has also tapped one of the top relief pitchers in baseball history to be its bullpen coach. Longtime San Diego Padres closer Trevor Hoffman, who ranks second in MLB history with 601 career saves, was brought on staff through his association with Great Britain assistant coach Brad Marcelino. Hoffman's mother is an England native from Southend-on-Sea, and his maternal grandfather was a footballer at Southend United.

"My mom is getting up there in age, and I think she would appreciate seeing her homeland represented by the family," Hoffman said.

Carroll and Marcelino, meanwhile, are the threads that link Great Britain's baseball past to its present.

Marcelino was born in Essex and lived in London as a child. He played in three different decades as an outfielder for Great Britain, debuting in 1999 and culminating with the 2012 WBC qualifier. In between, he was a member of the 2007 British team that won silver at the European championships. Marcelino's father, Oscar, played for Great Britain in the 1980s and later coached in the program as well.

Carroll joined the national program as an infielder in 1996 and began working his way up the coaching ladder starting in 2004. He also played for Oscar Marcelino at Porterville College in California for two seasons.

Brad Marcelino has witnessed amazing growth in British baseball since the days when his father played. Today, more than 20,000 Britons participate in baseball and softball, and the structure of the national team and development program has been firmly cemented.

"Light years [apart], a complete 180," Marcelino said in contrasting the two eras. "To now have the public see that there's a program on an international stage is tremendous."