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Willie Escala’s journey to the World Baseball Classic is about cherishing opportunity and an insatiable love for the game

Despite only playing one season at Miami, Escala made his impression felt
Despite only playing one season at Miami, Escala made his impression felt

Since its inception, baseball has held a unique place in American and global culture. With the number of leagues and teams, there’s no telling the kind of opportunities young players can receive.

 For Willie Escala, it wasn’t long after his brief tenure with the Miami University RedHawks that he found himself on the biggest stage against the best players.

Escala started his collegiate baseball career at the University of Miami in Florida, where he played 93 games throughout two seasons. The following year, he transferred to the Division II level at Barry University.

COVID-19 cut his junior and senior seasons to less than 25 games each, so Escala entered the transfer portal hoping to find a solution to his playing time problem which led to a call from the RedHawks.

Escala had a strong year as a graduate student with the RedHawks, hitting .275 with a .737 OPS, the highest of his career at the Division-I level. 

“I loved [Miami],” Escala said. “I thought Coach [Danny] Hayden was running a really good program, and I always liked what he had to say about being mentally tough and working through adversity. If you take it the right way and you have somebody who mentors you through it, they can help you understand that it’s a part of life.”

The former Miami manager Hayden complimented Escala’s attitude he brought every day to the clubhouse.

“Willie is a ballplayer in every sense you can think of,” Hayden said. “He is at the field early every day, the last one to leave, and the whole time, he has a smile ear to ear. He is truly one of my favorite players I’ve had the pleasure of coaching.”

Escala was only with the RedHawks for one year before moving on to his future in baseball. He found his way to the Sussex County Miners in the Frontier League because of a friend who played there. 

It was thanks to his third base coach at Sussex, Simon Walters, and a delay from the initial date of 2021 due to COVID-19 that Escala experienced the wonders of the World Baseball Classic (WBC) in 2023.

Walters, who was coaching Germany in the WBC, was talking with Pavel Chadim, the manager of the Czech Republic team, and coaches Alex Derhak and John Hussey when the conversation turned to Escala.

“[Simon Walters] said, ‘Hey, we have this guy who is half-Czech, half-Cuban, but his mom was born in the Czech Republic, so he would be eligible for a passport,’” Escala said. “I guess they looked into my numbers and my baseball resume and gave me a call.”

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After a couple of workouts, Escala went from playing on a small team in the Independent League to playing on a national team for a country he has a connection to but had never visited.

Escala arrived at camp two weeks early and was brought in by the players quickly.

“[The guys] were cool people to be around,” Escala said. “They had such a joy of playing baseball. It was refreshing because when you start playing at the professional level, it becomes more of a business, more of a career. But they reminded me that baseball is fun, too.” 

The Czech Republic was slotted into Group B with Korea, Australia, China and Japan for pool play starting on March 7, 2023. The Czech Republic was scheduled to play Japan in the first round. Escala’s first international game was in the Tokyo Dome in front of 55,000 people.

Photo by Leňule Brožová | The Miami Student
Escala played for the Czech Republic in the 2023 World Baseball Classic

A favorite to win the tournament, Japan boasted tons of top-tier professional talent from the MLB and the Nippon Professional Baseball League (NPB), the highest league in Japan.

Shohei Ohtani, the two-way talent then with the Los Angeles Angels, was the main attraction for everyone.

“I remember watching Ohtani’s batting practice,” Escala said. “I got out [to the field] for his last round, and he hit five balls off the scoreboard. He was putting them dead center over the batter’s eye. They’re people, but you can see what makes them special.” 

Despite the fantastical events of batting practice, Escala’s big moment was against Japan’s starting pitcher, Rōki Sasaki, in the top of the fourth inning.

Sasaki pitched in the NPB and was regarded as one of the fastest-throwing pitchers in Japanese baseball history, throwing a 102.5 mph fastball in an exhibition game leading up to the WBC. 

After striking Escala out with a fastball in their first encounter, Sasaki went ahead 1-2 in the count during their second meeting. 

Escala fouled off a splitter before a fastball, instead of hitting the strike zone, hit Escala on the outside of his right leg at 101 mph, sending him tumbling to the ground.

Escala managed to walk off the pain and make his way to first base, earning him recognition from both teams, Sasaki himself and fans in the audience. 

After the game, Sasaki gave two large bags of Japanese candy as a gift and an apology for the hit.

Japanese baseball culture isn’t just about countless hours of training to be the best: it’s also about respecting the game and your opponents. Escala witnessed these values firsthand with Sasaki and all of Team Japan after the 10-2 defeat.

“Seeing the level of respect they show to the game was refreshing,” Escala said. “They were chatting it up with our infielders after they got on base during the game. And at the end of the game, they bowed to the crowd and then bowed to us for putting up a fight and playing the game with a lot of respect.”

After his experience at the WBC, Escala went to the Czech Republic, where the national team would be competing in the European Baseball Championships in Prague. He hit his first international home run during the competition. 

Escala has since returned to the U.S. While he continues to work out in anticipation of the 96-game Frontier League season after re-signing with the Miners on Feb. 19, he is working as a construction assistant superintendent and assistant coach for the Miami Country Day School varsity baseball team.