FOX Sports MLB Analyst
Beneath the clattering rumble of 10,000 inflatable thundersticks, 7,700 miles from The Bronx, a 12-year-old brace-faced Anthony Volpe dug his spikes into the batter’s box at Tianmu Stadium in Taiwan and readied himself for glory. As the spark plug and heartbeat of USA Baseball’s original 12U national team, Volpe was carrying oversized expectations on his undersized shoulders at the 2013 International Baseball Federation World Cup in Taipei.
Fifty feet away, a goliathan post-pubescent Venezuelan fireballer, who, according to one of Team USA’s coaches, was throwing a fastball equivalent at that level to one in the upper 90s while sporting “an actual mustache.” But Volpe, listed at a diminutive 5-feet-nothing, 95 pounds, didn’t flinch.
The 2023 Yankees’ Opening Day shortstop pulled his hands inside a hair-raising heater and roped a line-drive double into the corner. Numerous coaches and teammates remember exactly what happened next. Volpe coasted into second base, turned to face his dugout, where a hoard of baseballing American pre-teens were going berserk, and proudly held up the embroidered logo across his chest for the world to see: U.S.A.
“I’ll never forget that play,” reminisced Terrance Freeman, an assistant coach on that 12U team. “A young kid with braces and a million dollar smile who feared nothing and had the bat speed and ability to back up the confidence that he had in himself.”
Volpe’s exceptional blend of self-assuredness, boundless energy, raw talent and poise, which has since propelled him all the way to breaking camp with the Yankees this spring against all expectations, were manifested during his summers with USA Baseball. The tiny kid from Watchung, New Jersey who became the first player (alongside Cubs prospect Pete Crow-Armstrong) to play for USA Baseball at the 12U, 15U and 18U levels, will now draw upon that journey as he prepares to face the ultimate challenge of playing shortstop for the most famous sports franchise in America.
And unlike most MLB rookies, Volpe has felt the pressure of representing his country and its pastime in front of hostile, deafening crowds in places like Taiwan, Japan and Panama. He understands what it’s like to play with a target on his back as an overwhelming favorite, as despised public enemy No. 1 of international baseball. Volpe first learned, at age 12 while the rest of us were at sleepaway camp, how to maintain his composure in front of thousands of people hoping and praying for him and his teammates to fail.
“Those experiences playing for Team USA taught me so much about what’s important about the game,” Volpe told FOX Sports early on in Spring Training. “Whether it’s the stars and stripes or now playing for the Yankees, you’re playing for something bigger than yourself.”
No one beyond Volpe and his family expected him to be the Yankees’ starting shortstop on Opening Day. Fellow top infield prospect Oswald Peraza had the consensus better glove, while Volpe had defensive question marks. Peraza debuted in the Bronx at the end of 2022, held his own at the plate and even started an ALCS game against the Astros, whereas the 21-year-old Volpe has played just 22 career games above Double-A (and not particularly well). Isaiah Kiner-Falefa also lingered somewhere off-screen.
But Volpe hit so well, wowed New York’s decision-makers so much, left such an undeniable impression on everyone he met, worked with and played in front of, that the Yankees had no choice but to put him on the roster. For an organization that has a reputation for being overly cautious and slow to react transactionally, the decision to crown Volpe out of camp spoke volumes about just how stellar of a spring the Yanks thought he had.
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But let’s rewind to the spring of 2013, when Volpe was just a pipsqueak Yankees fan and Little Leaguer standing next to his dad near a baggage claim carousel in the Atlanta airport. Father and son had flown down to Georgia so Volpe could try out for USA Baseball’s first ever 12U national team. Over 200 kids had registered for the event, which was just one of a number of trials being held all across the country.
“I knew I was pretty good for New Jersey or New York,” Volpe explained. “But I didn’t play real travel baseball, so we didn’t know if I was actually any good yet.”
While waiting for their luggage, Michael Volpe struck up a conversation with another father of a Team USA hopeful. Before long, the guy started to chat Dr. Volpe’s ear off about how the team was practically already decided, how their sons had no chance and how the process was a sham.
Though the tryout day itself was a total blur for the younger Volpe, he distinctly recalls what happened next at the airport.
“I remember so vividly. He asked my dad, ‘What position does your son play?’ Volpe said. “My dad says ‘shortstop.’ The other guy goes, ‘Well, the best shortstop in the country is already on the team, his name is YoYo Morales. Your son has no shot.’”
At least the gab-happy dad was right about something: Morales made the team, too. He’s now a star third baseman at the University of Miami and a potential first-round pick in the upcoming draft. Volpe and Morales spent that whole summer together and still talk to this day.
The atmosphere at a baseball game in Taiwan is part flash mob, part concert, part European soccer game. It is unlike anything you’d see at a stateside ballpark. From the country’s top professional league down to the youth levels, Taiwanese fans are known for creating an unyielding wall of noise through cheers, chants, songs and instruments. Take the recent World Baseball Classic as an example.
Yu Chang blasts a grand slam to give Chinese Taipei a 5-1 lead over the Netherlands
Yu Chang blasted a grand slam that gave Chinese Taipei a 5-1 lead over the Netherlands in the 2023 World Baseball Classic.
Team USA’s experience at the 2013 IBF World Cup was no different. In order to accommodate as many fans as possible, the host country refitted a full-sized pro stadium with a temporary fence and shorter dimensions in the infield to make it playable for the youngins. That created a professional environment for a 12-year-old baseball tournament, thundersticks and all. The event’s championship game, between the hosts and the U.S., was particularly raucous and well-attended.
“I was fortunate to play in some pretty big arenas, in front of some big crowds,” said Freeman, who has since left baseball for politics to become Jacksonville, Florida’s city-council president. “That was the toughest environment as a player or coach that I’ve ever experienced. For a 12-year-old game to have, like, 10 [thousand] to 12,000 people in the stands. Sheesh.”
Volpe added: “It felt like playing inside of a beehive.”
Unbothered by the noise, the shortest kid on Team USA let his play speak volumes. Volpe started all nine games at second base, posted a .500 batting average and made the All-tournament team as the Americans went 8-1 and won the championship.
“He just bounced around the field. The kid was everywhere. Freakin’ swung it every single game. His level was crazy,” said Kayler Yates, one of Volpe’s teammates from that summer and now a college player at Utah Valley University.
But while Volpe cherishes the memories, the friendships, the bus rides and the accolades, he’ll tell you the lessons he learned that summer were just as important.
“Every single kid on that team was the best player their town had ever seen,” he explained. “For that  team to succeed, we learned how to sacrifice something to play for something bigger than ourselves.”
Three years after Taiwan, Volpe prepared for another summer of international baseball, his sights squarely set on helping the national team to victory in the upcoming WBSC U-15 Baseball World Cup. But first, he had to make the team. In front of him, another, even more rigorous batch of tryouts, the competition for a roster spot on the 15U squad even more selective.
A strong reputation and even stronger play pushed Volpe to the final hurdle, a trip to the Team USA baseball complex in Cary, North Carolina for a week’s worth of scrimmages after which the coaching staff would trim the roster from around 40 to 18. But once games started in Cary, it became blatantly obvious to those in charge that Volpe needed to be on the roster.
“The first thing that gets you are the mannerisms, his handshake, how he introduces himself, but then that smile… that kind of sums up that kid,” said Jason Maxwell, a longtime Team USA national team coach. “He smiles more than anybody I’ve ever seen in my life.
“But that kid plays like every at-bat, every ground ball, is the last he’ll ever get. And In order to play this game, at the highest level, your temperament has to be different. And his temperament is always different.”
A lot of talented players could have played shortstop for the 2016 15U team; America is a fairly large country, after all. But Volpe, as 15U assistant coach Drew Briese put it, “simply took over,” quickly separating himself from the other infielders. Current Reds farmhand Trey Faltine, who became a three-year starting shortstop at the University of Texas, was pushed to the bench. Carter Young, who would play shortstop for three years at Vanderbilt, played third and caught. Christian Cairo, the son of longtime big-league infielder Miguel, slid over to second. Adam Crampton, whose slick glove had pushed Volpe to second base three summers earlier in Taiwan and would eventually earn him 2022 Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year honors, didn’t even make the roster.
And once the team arrived in Iwaki, Japan for the World Cup in late July, the only Northeasterner on a club full of Californians, Texans, Georgians and Floridians led the way. Volpe started all nine games at short, batted .419 and swiped a tourney-leading eight bags. Unfortunately, the U.S. came up short in a crucial game against Colombia — a game-tying single in the top of the ninth trickled just inches beyond Volpe’s outstretched glove — and returned home with an unfulfilling bronze medal.
Ask Volpe about the 2016 15U team and it’s clear the loss still genuinely irks him, even from the comfort of the Yankees’ clubhouse all these years later. But if you ask anyone else who was around that team about Volpe, they’ll all mention the same play.
Bases juiced, bottom nine, tying run on first; the pressure mounting as Team USA hangs for dear life against Samurai Japan in front of a packed home crowd on a muggy Friday night. In other words: no better time for the unflappable Volpe to turn the double play of his life.
At first glance, the play looks like an optical illusion.
Volpe stretches towards the second baseman’s toss, while simultaneously swiping across the roof of the bag with his back foot. Then, in the blink of a butterfly’s wings, he transfers the pill from glove to hand, before unleashing a physics-defying laser beam across the diamond to get the runner by a hair. Impressive for anyone. Outrageous, inconceivable, unforgettable stuff for a 15-year-old kid.
“It’s probably the hardest I’ve ever thrown a ball,” Volpe suggested.
“I saw him do that and I knew, holy cow, this kid is a big leaguer,” Briese reminisced.
Maxwell, who still communicates with Volpe regularly, says that leading up to the Japan game, he’d been pestering the young shortstop about his tendency to hesitate on the double-play turn. So that afternoon, during batting practice, the two worked on expediting his movements around the bag for about 30 minutes.
“I kept saying: ‘turn it loose, turn it loose,’” Maxwell said. “And how does the game end? Him turning a double play. That’s special. I still show that video of him when I speak to Team USA kids now when I talk about being coachable. [Volpe] took something really small, from hours before, and applied it in the most meaningful moment of the game. No hesitation.”
In 2018, Volpe’s experience on the 18U squad was a bit more serene. Because of the international baseball tournament cycle, Team USA competed in the Pan-American Games in Panama instead of a true global tournament. A squad stocked with eventual star prospects Bobby Witt Jr., Corbin Carroll, presumed 2023 No. 1 overall pick Dylan Crews, Riley Greene and Jack Leiter, steamrolled Honduras, Peru, Brazil, Dominican Republic, Panama, Canada, Venezuela and Nicaragua by a combined score of 131-24.
“I got home and my high school coach asked me if we played Little Leaguers.” Volpe shared. “But those teams were really good, we were just on a different level.”
Volpe started every game (at second base, Witt Jr. played short) and hit .459 as one of only two returners from the third-place 2016 team. It was a dominating, if somewhat anticlimactic conclusion to a phenomenal amateur Team USA career.
“Having played with him that  summer and having watched him all those years playing a year above me on Team USA.” Pete Crow-Armstrong told FOX Sports over the phone. “I truly believe that Volpe is that guy, and he’s built for whatever New York throws at him, and I know that those Team USA experiences helped with that.”
Flash forward to this spring and there was Volpe, no braces, more muscle mass trying to make the big-league roster. One February day, standing in front of his temporary spring locker with a Yankees dri-fit T-shirt tucked into his pinstripe pants, Volpe swayed slowly from side to side while trying to pull back a memory he hasn’t vocalized in years.
“Our first day in Taiwan.” he recalled. “And I’ll never forget this. We walk into the cafeteria and every country’s team has a table. We walk in there and the room freezes. You could hear a pin drop. Everyone turns and stares at us. Everyone wanted to beat us. We got every team’s best. I guess you could say that’s similar to playing for the Yankees.”
To be a truly legendary Yankee is to embrace the chaos and let it elevate you, to float through the endless madness with ease, to genuinely appreciate the limelight and all it offers, to see passionate criticism and call it love. Joe DiMaggio and Yogi Berra wrote the manual, Derek Jeter perfected it for the modern age and Aaron Judge follows it to the letter, while Álex Rodríguez, often too concerned with his own image, never quite figured it out.
But Anthony Volpe, because of his innate poise, youthful exuberance, immense skill and, yes, his time with Team USA, appears more than prepared for the monumental task at hand. Those who know him say he will thrive under the pressure simply because he has always thrived under the pressure, even when the mainstream baseball world wasn’t tuned in yet.
“He’s always been able, even at a younger age, to block out all the noise.” Maxwell said. “He knows the Yankees are bigger than him. But I’m telling you, his star is still gonna shine. I have no doubt. Because he has that temperament. That’s just who AV is.”
Jake Mintz, the louder half of @CespedesBBQ is a baseball writer for FOX Sports. He played college baseball, poorly at first, then very well, very briefly. Jake lives in New York City where he coaches Little League and rides his bike, sometimes at the same time. Follow him on Twitter at @Jake_Mintz.
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