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August 10, 2012 5:00 am

Baseball at the Olympics


Max Marchi

Baseball is missing from the Olympics this summer, but the sport has a longer, richer history at the Olympic Games than you remember.

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.

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One fast man calls an even faster man a fool.

Billy Hamilton is aware of Usain Bolt’s existence, and apparently he's unimpressed.

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As Cuba celebrates their return to the top of the heap, Clay Davenport takes a look at the field they conquered and comes away less than impressed.

But how good was the level of play in a tournament that had nearly as many European teams (three) as representatives from the rest of the world (five)?

Fortunately for the answer to that question, the skill level of many of the players in the Olympic tournament was a known quantity. Most of the players for Canada, Australia, Greece and the Netherlands are or have been in the American minor leagues, and we have a very good understanding of the level of play in the minors. A few, like Dave Nilsson and Gene Kingsale, have major-league experience, but because Major League Baseball would not release anyone from their contracts to participate in the Olympics, no one on an active major-league roster was present. All of the Japanese players came from their major league, and while we aren't quite as certain about rating the Japanese leagues (see Baseball Prospectus 2004) as we are with the American minors, we still do pretty well. The Taiwanese were mostly unknown, the team drawn mainly from their professional leagues, which I have never been able to translate in either a baseball or a linguistic sense. Their top players, Chin-Feng Chen and Chin-Hui Tsao, do play in the States and are on the verge of playing in the majors. The Italians were unknown, coming from their home leagues, but a couple have played in the U.S. before. The Cubans were all unknown.

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Mike Neill was a key player on the United States baseball team in the 2000 Olympics, the team that defied most predictions by beating Cuba to win the gold medal. Neill led the competition in runs scored (11), walks (eight), and home runs (three), including a dramatic game-winning home run in the 10th inning to beat Japan in round-robin play. Those heroics came just a year after his game-winning home run against Mexico in the Pan American Games quarterfinal guaranteed the U.S. team a berth in the Sydney Olympics.

Neill was drafted by Oakland in 1991 and has minor-league career totals of .310/.403/.453. He spent last season with the Mariners' Triple-A affiliate in Tacoma, where he smoked the ball to the tune of .310/.423/.494 but was passed up for promotion in favor of a trade for no-hit, no-field Al Martin. Next time you hear that your local club is looking for a left-handed hitter with on-base skills, fax them Neill's stat line out of the green book.

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Your response to the mailbag question on umpires included a thought I've been having regarding the use of technology in calling games.

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