ST. PETERSBURG -- Jose Molina sat out the first two World Baseball Classics, but two factors made this year's a priority.
First, the 37-year-old Rays catcher will get a chance to play alongside his brother, Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina, for the first time. Jose Molina has taken the field with his older brother Bengie, 38, but the seven-year gap between Molina and his younger brother kept them from ever occupying the same dugout.
But it also provides Molina a chance to represent his home country of Puerto Rico, where the Classic inspires the level of national passion and pride more often associated with soccer's World Cup. On top of all that, Puerto Rico will open pool play on its home turf: Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan.
"I couldn't miss this one," Molina said last week after a morning workout at Tropicana Field. "To play with your brother and for your country, there's a lot of people that's going to root for you out there. Pretty much all the Puerto Ricans in the world are going to be looking at those games. I always call it like it's the World Series of Puerto Rico, because that's the way they take it there.
"[Playing at home] puts pressure on the players, but at the same time, the adrenaline takes over and you never know what can happen. That's going to be really special."
Molina would know: He watched Puerto Rico play in front of its home crowd in 2006. Yadier backed up Ivan Rodriguez in that tournament and the '09 Classic, but he will get a chance to start come March. And he'll have his big brother, the Classic first-timer, waiting in the dugout as his backup.
"It's going to be good for me and for my family," Yadier Molina told reporters at the Cardinals' Winter Warm-Up. "Just to be there and playing with other teams like the Dominican, Venezuela and the USA, it's going to be a great honor."
The experience will cost Molina a few weeks of his normal Spring Training routine, as he will go through about a week's worth of Grapefruit League games with Tampa Bay before joining the Puerto Rican team.
With a shortened spring slate on his mind, he took it upon himself to get his preseason training started early. While he's hardly known for his athleticism -- the 6-foot-2 backstop was listed at 250 pounds last season -- Molina appears to have slimmed down since last October.
"There's not another way to do it. We have to get ready. We'll probably be ready by the first week, a week before the Classic starts," Molina said. "You have to be ready in full. That's why I came in early a little bit, just to be ready and that stuff. My brother's doing the same, and most of the guys that I know are doing the same."
Puerto Rico's first game is March 8 against Spain, which beat Israel in the qualifying round despite a lack of Major League talent. But Puerto Rico's next two opponents, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic, will trot out veritable All-Star teams.
The Dominican team will present two familiar faces, the Rays' late-inning relief duo of Fernando Rodney and Joel Peralta. They will be joined by big leaguers Jose Reyes, Robinson Cano, Adrian Beltre, Edwin Encarnacion, Hanley Ramirez, Nelson Cruz and Carlos Santana.
The Venezuelan team might be even better. Puerto Rico's second opponent features American League MVP Miguel Cabrera, World Series MVP Pablo Sandoval, Mariners ace Felix Hernandez, infielders Elvis Andrus, Asdrubal Cabrera and Marco Scutaro and outfielders Martin Prado, Gerardo Parra and Carlos Gonzalez.
While Puerto Rico's roster includes some Major League talent in the Molina brothers and outfielders Carlos Beltran, Angel Pagan and Alex Rios, it doesn't quite compare to that of Venezuela or the Dominican Republic. Molina won't be lining up alongside the kind of recognizable stars he says Puerto Rican fans came to adore: Roberto Alomar, Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada and Rodriguez.
But that disparity only further motivates this year's Puerto Rican squad, according to Molina.
"People in Puerto Rico are used to those superstars," Molina said. "That makes Puerto Rico kind of unique in that kind of [aspect]. If you compare it with Venezuela or the Dominican, you see the huge difference there.
"But in these games, it's not about how you've played in the big leagues, in the MLB; it's how you play in the Classic. If you play good in those four games, you can go to the next round. That's what we're looking for."
Just as playing in the Classic might mean more to Puerto Rico's fans than most others, so too might a run at the championship. With their whole country keeping a close eye on the tournament, Molina, his brother and their teammates have a chance to become a part of Puerto Rican baseball history.
With that kind of motivation, missing the Classic a third time wasn't an option.
"It's a passion. They love the game," Molina said. "I'm not saying they don't love it here in the States, but it's pride. We take a lot of pride from being that small of an island, compared with this big country, and saying that we are proud of being from that small of a country. That's why people are so passionate about it."