SURPRISE, Ariz. -- The Texas Rangers players gathered in a horseshoe Wednesday morning, just outside of their clubhouse, and the haunting bugle call of taps played above them.
A final, touching salute ... punctuated by roars of laughter.
These are some of the sounds of a team coming back together, as the World Baseball Classic draws to a conclusion.
Jurickson Profar played for the Netherlands, a team eliminated by Puerto Rico Monday, and when returned into the Rangers clubhouse Wednesday, he discovered that a funeral wreath, atop a decorative stand, had been placed next to his locker, bearing the printed words Rest In Peace. Underneath that, somebody had written “Netherlands” in a magic marker, just to the left of where the initials "DR" -- for the Dominican Republic team -- had been drawn for the benefit of Adrian Beltre earlier this week.
Taps had been played for the D.R., then for the Netherlands, and the same will be done on Friday for pitcher Alex Claudio, a member of team Puerto Rico, which lost to the U.S. in the WBC championship Wednesday. It is humor designed as a welcome back party, and the level of levity has been ratcheted up significantly with Beltre and the others back in the clubhouse.
Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona mentioned earlier this week that with players like Francisco Lindor, Andrew Miller and Roberto Perez participating in the WBC, spring training for his team has felt disjointed. Francona might as well have been speaking for other managers about their teams, particularly the Rangers, the source of a large group of WBC participants -- most notably Beltre.
The third baseman, who will turn 38 in the first week of the regular season, is a future Hall of Famer now just 58 hits from reaching 3,000 for his career, but his legacy among former teammates will be as much about his consistent devotion to the others in the clubhouse as to his hits. When Beltre returned to the Rangers’ camp, it was as if everybody’s big brother walked through the door.
"When he was gone, it was kind of quiet," Rangers first baseman Mike Napoli said, "and when he gets back, there’s a lot more commotion going on. That’s just how it is. He brings the best out of everybody."
At 7:30 a.m. Wednesday, Beltre was alone outside of the clubhouse practicing basketball, preparing for the daily free-throw double-elimination contest that the Rangers hold. (And yes, he is an excellent shooter, although he said teammate Elvis Andrus is particularly adept). As Beltre returned to his locker, it seemed like he had a running gag with everyone who passed him, reacting with mock anger.
At the batting cage, he was the center of the universe of discussion, surrounded by young and old teammates, chatting in Spanish and English, Napoli, Andrus and Rougned Odor in orbit around him, speaking above the playlist of Latin music that churned out of the speakers mounted on top of the dugouts.
Infielders take ground balls every day, a necessary chore, but when Beltre is in the middle of it, this seems nothing like work. On Wednesday, the infielders jabbed words at each other, playfully raising their voices in appreciation when one of them would grab a tough hop and cheerfully mocking the occasional awkward mistake -- especially when Beltre made it.
As the infield work closed, the last two players fielding groundballs were Beltre and Andrus, taking turns near third base.
Andrus was 9 years old in 1998 when Beltre played his first game in the big leagues. Beltre has three children, the oldest a teenager. And Andrus, now 28, is getting ready for the birth of his first child, a son. Others in the organization say that Beltre brings out the best in Andrus, helping him with his focus, keeping him locked in.
Somehow, the simple task of fielding groundballs Wednesday turned into a competition, an impromptu game. There was an empty bucket just on the foul side of the third base line. After Beltre gloved a grounder, he turned at the spot where he caught the ball and, as if shooting a basketball, flipped the baseball at the bucket. Beltre was the first to drop one in, then Andrus, and in this way, the two of them gradually filled the bucket. Somebody was counting, somebody was winning, somebody was losing. Everybody in the area -- Beltre, Andrus, other players, coaches -- was laughing at the smack talk between them.
Finally, after Beltre landed one last shot into the bucket, Andrus turned and slammed his glove to the ground in frustration, grinning as he watched Beltre celebrate.
The two of them retreated to the dugout to get a drink, where they sat and talked, the conversation becoming more serious, two old friends glad to be together at work again.