If you were particularly invested in Italy’s fortune at the World Baseball Classic, you’d think Nick Punto was worthy of a hero’s welcome upon his return to Dodgers camp Friday.
Instead, as he usually does, the Dodgers’ utilityman quietly went back to work at Camelback Ranch.
Punto led Italy into the second round of the WBC, the farthest it’s ever gone at the tournament, having upset a pair of more traditional baseball countries (Canada and Mexico) in pool play.
Punto batted .421 (8 for 19) in five games at the tournament. Italy was eliminated Wednesday night in Miami with a 4-3 loss to Puerto Rico, one day after losing 5-4 to the Dominican Republic.
“I played in 2006,” said Punto, whose great-grandparents are Italian, “and it’s come a long way and it’s going to continue to grow.”
The 35-year-old Mission Viejo native is a strong proponent of the WBC and its role in expanding international interest in baseball. Punto said he spoke with MLB Players Association chief Michael Weiner to discuss their vision for the tournament.
“Get the [MLB] owners to buy in that this is a pride thing for our country — I’m speaking from an emotional standpoint,” he said. “I hope one day we can get ownership to buy in to having our best team on the field.
“One day we can take this thing so seriously that the (Clayton) Kershaws, the (Justin) Verlanders show up to spring training on February 1, January 18. It kind of is that way for the Latin American countries.”
Punto said he was impressed with the fan experience, the crowds, the organization of the tournament and the “little baseball things” that didn’t exist when the WBC was launched in 2006. The 2013 tournament also had a Cinderella favorite in Italy, and a few Italian reporters found time in the midst of selecting a new Pope to follow Team Italy.
Punto, for one, wasn’t surprised by his team’s success.
“I loved our starting pitching,” he said. “Obviously on paper we don’t match up with the Dominicans, the U.S. or Puerto Rico but we have some good hitters in our lineup.”