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The decision to allow professional baseball players to compete in the 2000
Olympics in Sydney, Australia brought with it a real chance that we, the
greatest nation on earth, would be able to put on a basketball-style
thrashing exhibition of what capitalism does for competition and athletic
development. Purity of competition hasn’t been part of the Olympics in
ages, with "amateur" athletes living increasingly professional
lives and making deferred incomes, so there’s no real loss. What we get in
return is a chance to laugh at smaller nations as we crush them in sports
we devote an obscene amount of resources to support. But I’m worried,
because there are some signs that we, as a nation, are going to waste this
opportunity to demonstrate the amazing power of anti-trust exemptions.

The United States Olympic baseball team will be coached by Tommy Lasorda,
which was the first bad sign. Lasorda is now naming coaches like Phil
Regan. Regan was responsible, along with manager Jim Riggleman, for not
only Kerry Wood‘s overwork but also for the abuse of Jeremi
Gonzalez
in 1998. Reggie Smith was also named a coach, being rewarded
for his well-regarded work as a batting and first-base coach at the 1999
Pan Am Games. Eddie Rodriguez, who manages the low-A Blue Jays’ affiliate
and has valuable third-base coaching experience, rounds out the staff.

This is already dangerous. Tommy Lasorda, known for his dugout swearing
jags–surprisingly loud, long and offensive for a man his age–napping and
burning out starters like Microsoft Quality Assurance contract temps,
teamed up with a pitching coach who let Kerry Wood throw more than 115
pitches 13 times, including the terrible 132-pitch outing one start before
Wood’s season ended.

If you were the GM of a progressive major-league organization, say, the
Braves or A’s, good at watching pitch counts and ensuring the health of
your pitching prospects through careful conditioning, monitoring and
coaching, what would you say if Tommy Lasorda called your organization and
asked if he could borrow Barry Zito to give the kid some big-game
experience? "Uh, sorry, Tommy, but we’re going to need him as a backup
pitch charter. Thanks for asking."

It is almost certain that good organizations will protect their pitching
prospects from career-threatening abuse for the sake of one last run at
glory for the Pastaman, and that means the U.S. will not field the best
team possible. Who does that leave? Brandon Duckworth of the
Phillies? Josh Kalinowski of the Rockies? It pains me to think of
these poor guys getting put into the noodle-maker.

Political pressure to represent both the minor leagues and colleges may
exacerbate the situation further. If Lasorda and Co. can’t get the kind of
pitching talent they want from the professional ranks, they’ll likely look
at college pitchers, many of whom are already being asked to throw 140
pitches while humming the school fight song. If this happens, we may well
get to see young, promising pitchers tear ligaments and rotator cuffs in
the red, white and blue uniforms of our country. Other unfortunate players
may not suffer that kind of catastrophic damage, but instead ensure the
Livan Hernandez slow-decline-through-abuse. In that scenario, they
just don’t ever seem to have the same speed and control, they wash out in
the minors and wonder what went wrong.

What’s worse is that the braintrust is entertaining a terrifying
possibility: giving roster spots to retired major leaguers, namely Wade
Boggs
and Terry Steinbach. It’s just speculation at this early
stage, but it’s speculation that has gone unchecked by the United States
Baseball authorities, and particularly by mouthpiece Lasorda. Are they
trying to generate excitement by letting rumors run wild? Possibly. But
it’s equally possible Lasorda is on a conference call with his bosses
right now, trying to get Ryne Sandberg on the short list for
second base.

Wade Boggs at 42 wasn’t embarrassing, hitting a translated .298/.372/.374
in limited playing time for Tampa Bay, a performance that was a little
below the positional average. But it was a spike in his offensive decline,
and his defense was starting to raise eyebrows. How would he be at 43, a
year out of the game? Would he better than Oakland third-base prospect
Adam Piatt, whose translation at age 23 was .291/.371/.548? And
while I think Terry Steinbach is a great guy, and at 38 was still worth
playing, baseball has some great catching prospects in the minors, like
Boston’s Steve Lomansey and Colorado’s Ben Petrick.

I sincerely hope that I’ll get to see our country finally show those Cubans
what’s what, giving them back that kid while retaining the gold medal. But
as the coaching staff comes together, and the possibility that Boggs will
pull on a new uniform remains, I’m concerned that not only will we lose,
and lose badly, but that the losses will come at the price of destroyed
young arms, while Lasorda and his coaches shrug and say they did all they
could. If we’re really going to represent our country, our young hitters
should have the opportunity for success this country aspires to give to all
its citizens, and our young pitchers should retain their right to pursue
happiness, not feel something tear on pitch #144 and realize it’s all over.

Derek Zumsteg can be reached at dzumsteg@baseballprospectus.com.

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