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August 10, 2012

Baseball at the Olympics

The Rich Tradition of an Absentee Sport

by Max Marchi

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In case you haven’t noticed, there is a sporting event being held besides baseball’s dog days of August (hint: it’s happening in London). For a brief time, baseball was a part of it. I can understand if you didn’t pay attention to it, though, since only lesser players were involved in Olympic baseball while it was part of the program.

If you agreed with that last sentence, I kindly suggest that you reconsider your position.

Two of the biggest crowds ever to attend a baseball game assembled at the Olympics. One of the greatest home run hitters in baseball history played in the Olympic Games alongside a Hall of Fame shortstop, one of the most famous managers led his nation to the gold medal, and a pitcher who was among the best ever failed to participate only because his team lost the deciding game in the qualifiers. Three of the best pitchers in baseball today have played for their countries in the Olympic Games. Barring any unexpected changes, that won’t happen anymore, since baseball saw its last Olympic action four years ago in Beijing.

I promise not to ply you with a list of results you can find on any reference site (here, for example). But I will tell you about the players I mentioned above, and a few other interesting ones.

In the beginning: One-game exhibitions, pesapallo, and the largest crowd ever
In 1912, baseball was played at the Olympic Games for the first time. It was a single game, a six-inning affair featuring American athletes who had taken part in the track and field events and a Swedish team (that year’s Games were held in Stockholm). The man on the field with the most baseball experience was umpire George Wright, a Hall of Famer who had been on the original 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings.

A single baseball game was played again in the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany, between two American teams. Again the only person with major-league experience was not playing: Les Mann, a former outfielder who had played 18 seasons in the majors, both organized the event and umpired the game. Some reported a crowd of 120,000 in attendance at Berlin’s Olympic Stadium, which would likely be an all-time high for baseball. However, the less exaggerated figure of 90,000 still places it among the largest crowds ever to attend a baseball game.

The tradition of exhibition games continued at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, where the USA soccer team played against the Finnish champions, who actually played a different game named pesapallo. It continued in 1956 in Melbourne, where the top Australian amateur players squared off against a team of American servicemen serving in the Far East. In the final phases of the game, the crowd, waiting for the ensuing track and field events, reached 114,000.

In 1964, with the Games held in Tokyo, the U.S. assembled a team of top college players, which defeated a Japanese all-star amateur team. For the first time, the U.S. was represented by actual baseball players—eight of whom would later appear on major-league rosters. Unfortunately, that would turn out to be the last time baseball was played at the Olympics for another two decades.

1984 and 1988: Demonstration sport and an amateur world championship
With the Games played in American territory, the 1984 Olympics featured for the first time a full (eight-team) baseball tournament, although the sport was not in the official program. The United States always used to employ college kids on their teams in amateur competition and made no exception for the Los Angeles tournament.

Among the ’84 college players was shortstop Barry Larkin, whose Cooperstown plaque was recently unveiled. He was not the only one with a long major-league career ahead of him. Mark McGwire, whose ratio of 10.6 home runs per at-bat is the best in major-league history, was Team USA’s first baseman. Outfielder Will Clark, bound for a 15-year career with six All-Star appearances, was on the team too, as were Cory Snyder, Shane Mack, Bobby Witt, Scott Bankhead, and Billy Swift.
The tournament was held in Dodger Stadium. Japan, another nation whose most talented players were at home playing in their professional championship, prevailed over the United States. Cuba, arguably the top team at the amateur level, was not in the competition, following the USSR-led boycott of the 1984 Olympics.

Four years later, in Seoul, baseball was still played as a demonstration sport, and Team USA continued its tradition of sending college players, just as it did in basketball, where David Robinson from the Naval Academy was the top player. Despite the young age of its players, the Americans felt they had the chance to beat the Cuban powerhouse, since the team featured recent first-round picks Andy Benes (first overall), Jim Abbott, Ty Griffin, Robin Ventura, Tino Martinez, Charles Nagy, and Ed Sprague.
Add to that list Ben McDondald, a pitcher who created, at the end of the ’80s, a hype comparable to what surrounded Stephen Strasburg a couple of years ago, and who was to become the first overall pick in the 1989 draft.
The United States won the gold (suffering their only loss in the preliminary round at the hands of Canadian starter Rheal Cormier) but the anticipated clash against Cuba did not happen, as the island team joined North Korea in another boycott of the Olympics.

However, the two teams had faced off a few months before in the Amateur World Championship, which was held—to the delight of the little boy who grew up to write this article—in Italy. U.S. vs. Cuba was the much-anticipated matchup in the final game. It was a close one, as the Cubans won 4-3 coming from behind, their rally ignited by a controversial call by an Italian umpire working at first base. Cuba featured a 26-year-old Orlando Hernandez on its roster, while the Japanese team, which finished third in Italy and second in Seoul, included a 20-year-old Hideo Nomo.

1992: Playing for the medals, and the Blue Jays have an idea
The 1992 Olympics marked firsts both for basketball (the U.S. employed NBA players on what became known as the original Dream Team) and for baseball, as the sport entered the official program. Among the 19-to-22-year-old American players were future stars Jason Giambi, Jason Varitek, and Nomar Garciaparra. Other players on the roster who would go to have significant careers were outfielder Jeffrey Hammonds, right-handed pitcher Rick Helling, catcher Charles Johnson, multi-position player Phil Nevin, outfielder Michael Tucker, and reliever Ron Villone.

However, Cuba was probably at its best, with Hernandez still years away from his defection and a fearsome one-two offensive punch in Omar Linares and Orestes Kindelan. A 9-6 victory over the U.S. team in the preliminary round was the closest call for the Cubans, who won the gold ahead of Taiwan and Japan.

Linares was to gain a lot of attention over the following few months. During the MLB offseason, the newly crowned World Champion Toronto Blue Jays, looking for a third baseman, reportedly offered a contract to the five-tool Cuban star. They went so far as to suggest a scenario in which Linares would play only the Jays’ home games in Canadian territory, thus circumventing the U.S. embargo against Cuba. In the end, the deal—which would have been controversial, to say the least—did not go through, and Linares played the rest of his career in Cuba and Japan.

1996: Pushing the world champions out of town
The Olympiad in 1996 had some small effect on the defending World Series champion Braves. Since the Games took place in Atlanta, the Braves were ousted from the city for five consecutive series while Fulton County Stadium hosted the teams playing for the medals. The following year, that stadium would be demolished, while the Centennial Olympic Stadium, where Michael Johnson dominated the 200m and 400m races, became the new home field of the Braves after both its name and its structure were modified.

Cuba’s bats, again led by Linares and Kindelan, were too much for any other team, as they never scored less than eight runs. Cuba also featured future major leaguer Jose Contreras on the mound. Team Japan won the silver medal, defeating team USA by a whopping 11-2 in the semis. That team included Kosuke Fukudome and Tadaito Iguchi.

Several of the U.S. players of that Olympics, in their 20s back then, have already seen their last major-league action. Troy Glaus is probably the most notable, but Jeff Weaver, Braden Looper, Travis Lee, Jacque Jones, Matt LeCroy, and Kris Benson were also on the roster. There are also a couple of players who won the bronze in Atlanta who are still active in the majors. Mark Kotsay is at the tail end of his career. On the other hand, a player whose career seemed in jeopardy not many months after those Olympic Games has just blossomed into one of the elite pitchers in baseball, thanks to a never-before-seen hard knuckleball. R.A. Dickey was assigned the easiest games (Italy and the Netherlands) in 1996, but he is in the race for the N.L. Cy Young Award 16 years later.

2000: Enter the pros
Still without an official gold, the United States went all-in for Sydney in 2000, opening the roster to professional players. The team wasn’t close to the kind of powerhouses that basketball had been showcasing since 1992, as the MLB schedule did not allow for top players to leave for a couple of weeks. However, thanks in large part to the Games being held down-under, and in late September, some minor leaguers were allowed to join the national team.

Obviously, major-league clubs did not concede the top players in their farm system to the Olympic cause (George Steinbrenner, for example, vetoed Nick Johnson’s participation), and some late call-ups forced on-the-fly changes for the U.S. team. Thus, the minor leaguers on the 2000 team to have the most significant careers were slick-fielding first baseman Doug Mientkewicz and right-handed pitcher Ryan Franklin.

Tommy Lasorda came out of retirement for the occasion to manage Team USA and felt a veteran presence like that of 37-year-old catcher Pat Borders could help the team. The usual college kids rounded out the roster, among them shortstop Adam Everett and pitchers Roy Oswalt and Ben Sheets, who started in the semi-final and the final, respectively.

The mix was good enough to take gold away from the Cuban team, which still featured Jose Contreras on its pitching staff.

There were also familiar names on the Japanese team (So Taguchi and Daisuke Matsuzaka), Italy (Jason Simontacchi, a U.S.-born pitcher who was later to play some big-league ball for the Cardinals and the Nationals), and the home team, Australia (Grant Balfour and Chris Snelling).

2004: The Greek god of...
While playing what at the time was supposed to be his final season (2003), Roger Clemens expressed the desire to close his career in Athens, hopefully helping the U.S. national team win a second Olympic gold. Given that he was retiring as an effective pitcher, nothing short of dominance on his part was expected against amateur opponents. Unfortunately, the chance to see a baseball deity playing at the slopes of Mt. Olympus never materialized, because Team USA unexpectedly failed to qualify for the Games in Athens.

Despite the absence of the United States, several future major leaguers were on the field in Athens. Southpaw pitcher Ryan Rowland-Smith played for the surprising silver medalist Australia (the gold went back to Cuba). Japan (bronze) featured right-handed pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma (who started his major-league career with the Mariners this year), outfielder Kosuke Fukudome, catcher Kenji Johjima, right-handed pitchers Hiroki Kuroda and Daisuke Matsuzaka, and righty reliever Koji Uehara.
Chien-Ming Wang pitched for his native Taiwan.

Perhaps the most interesting case was that of the team hosting the tournament. Greece had never fielded a baseball team, not even in the lower European tournaments, and it had to create one from scratch for the Olympic Games. The roster was made of American-born athletes of Greek descent (pitcher Khristoforos Robinson was the only player on the roster actually born in Greece). Among them were Clint Zavaras, who had played 10 unspectacular games for the Mariners back in 1989, Clay Bellinger, who had amassed over 300 plate appearances in four years in the big leagues while playing everywhere on the field, and current major leaguers George Kottaras and Nick Markakis. That team managed to win one game against Italy, thereby escaping last place.

2008: The final act
When the Beijing Olympic tournament began, the fact that baseball would not be played in the London Olympics had been public knowledge for more than three years.

The decision had been made by secret vote in a 2005 IOC meeting in Singapore. Among the reasons given for the exclusion were the absence of major leaguers in previous competitions (while basketball, favored by a non-conflicting schedule, had sent many NBA players over the years, and hockey, in the Winter Games, had managed to stop NHL play during the 1998 and 2002 Olympics) and the lax anti-doping provisions baseball had at the time. Though it wasn’t mentioned, the need to build diamonds from scratch (and then have them sit unused after the Olympics) in places oblivious to baseball like Athens was probably a factor as well.

The final act for baseball at the Olympics also saw some good players, with Japan featuring Uehara and Munenori Kawasaki and Team USA sending Brett Anderson, Trevor Cahill, Brian Duensing, Matt LaPorta, Lou Marson, Jayson Nix, Dexter Fowler, and Nate Schierholtz. Rheal Cormier was back in action for the Canadian team (which also featured 18-year-old Brett Lawrie) 20 years after Seoul. Shairon Martis played for Holland, a few months before making headlines in international competition by no-hitting Panama in the first edition of the World Baseball Classic.

Two of the best pitchers today, and likely for years to come, were also part of that tournament. Yu Darvish and Stephen Strasburg were on the Japanese and American rosters, respectively, but they were not enough to propel their teams toward the final, which saw Korea defeat Cuba.

Roger Clemens must have had a soft spot for the Olympics. In fact, as the Games in Beijing were approaching, he once more expressed his desire to come out of retirement and join Team USA. This time, the squad qualified, but The Rocket, who eight years earlier would have given a boost to the entire tournament (and quite possibly kept baseball alive in the Olympics for a little longer), was not welcome after his involvement with PEDs.

Related Content:  Olympics,  Olympic Games,  Amateur Baseball,  Medals

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