By Nick Kelly
Baseball is still America’s Pastime. But, representing the game on a national level brings a new level of responsibility and importance.
2018 Collegiate National Team manager Paul Mainieri understands this better than most.
“For 25 days, when you put that USA jersey on, to me it’s bigger than anything,” he said.
Mainieri will don that jersey for the second time in his career after previously serving as an assistant coach for the Collegiate National Team in 2015.
“The first time I pulled that USA jersey on over my head, it was in the privacy of my own hotel room,” Mainieri said. “I stood in front of a mirror to see what it would look like, and it overwhelmed me emotionally. I literally started to have tears stream down my cheeks.”
That campaign saw Mainieri assisting his friend Ed Blankmeyer, the current head coach at St. John’s. The 2015 team finished with a 9-8 record, including four wins over Chinese Taipei and a win in the annual USA vs. Cuba International Friendship Series.
Now in 2018, Mainieri will take the reins with the help of some of his closest colleagues.
“I’m going to have some of my dearest friends in my lifetime and in baseball serve as our coaching staff,” he said. “They’re all amazing coaches.”
The group will include former Baseball America National Coach of the Year Jim Hendry (New York Yankees), three-time National Coach of the Year Brian O’Connor (University of Virginia), AAC Coach of the Year Cliff Godwin (East Carolina), and former NAIA national runner-up coach George Perez (St. Thomas).
Having seen and coached against the likes of international powers Chinese Taipei, Cuba and Japan, Mainieri knows victory will not be easy to come by, especially with the challenge of maintaining the World Baseball Softball Confederation No. 1 World Baseball Ranking.
“I saw it firsthand when I coached that summer—how good Japan was, how good Taiwan was, how good the Cubans are,” he said. “They take their baseball very seriously in those countries, and the players were outstanding.”
Along with the games itself, another challenge is gathering the team of 24-26 players and getting comfortable working together expeditiously.
“It won’t take long,” Mainieri said. “Baseball is baseball. There’s no great secrets about the game. It’s just really a matter of picking the right players and motivating and inspiring them and letting them play the game the way they know how to play.”
Playing for Team USA provides an unrivaled experience, but also presents a great responsibility. Mainieri knows this, but he notes just how important it is for the players to comprehend and accept it.
“I want it to be life-changing for them, honestly,” he said. “I don’t want a player on the team unless they understand the significance of what it means to be a member of Team USA.”
Team USA will begin their run June 26 at the National Training Complex in Cary, North Carolina. They will face-off against the Coastal Plain League All-Stars before series against Chinese Taipei, Japan, and trip to Cuba for the 7th Annual USA vs. Cuba International Friendship Series.
The last time the U.S. traveled to Cuba, a Keston Hiura pinch-hit home run in the eighth inning of the rubber match led Team USA to a 2-1 win and its first-ever series victory over Cuba on their home soil.
Mainieri has to finish his 12th season at LSU before he heads to North Carolina. He has reached the highest level in collegiate baseball, winning a national championship in 2009. But that doesn’t stop him from having high hopes for his national team.
“Having this opportunity to manage the Collegiate National Team is the crowning achievement for me personally, and I will have felt as complete as I possibly will be with my coaching career,” he said. “If we can have a really successful summer and take care of business in the three series that we have, it will just be icing on the cake.
“To coach representing the country that I love so much, and then to win and have success, it would just be a trip of a lifetime.”