Competing in the Olympics is the pinnacle for an athlete. The zenith, right?
“This will be right up there, right alongside the Olympics,” said infielder Stubby Clapp, Canada’™s Mr. Baseball.
This, of course, refers to the first World Baseball Classic.
“The Athens Olympics were the best players in the world—the best amateurs and the best not on the 40-man rosters,” Clapp said. “This is THE best players available, period . . . a whole new level of play.”
Canada’™s team will have a new feel with major leaguers such as Pirates star Jason Bay on the roster. But teams such as Canada, Australia and Panama also will fall back on old international stalwarts such as Clapp to make key contributions in the World Baseball Classic, whether big leaguers are involved or not.
Clapp, who played 23 games for the Cardinals in 2001, is entering his eighth international competition. Unlike some of the others where Clapp was the starting second baseman, will be a reserve at the Classic.
The Windsor, Ont., native, who played with Edmonton in the independent Northern League in 2005, hopes this isn’™t his last international tournament for Canada. Ditto for outfielder Ryan Radmanovich, from Calgary. They intend to be part of the qualifying team for the 2008 Olympics in China, when they will play Take Me Out to the Ball Game, followed by taps for the last scheduled Olympic baseball competition.
“(The WBC) has better talent than the Olympics, and it’™s definitely an honor to represent your country on this type of stage,” said Radmanovich, who played in the independent Atlantic League in 2005. “The Olympics have always been there. We’™ve been trying to qualify since 1992, came so close in 1999, so finally getting there was something special. This is new.”
Playing for Canada is nothing new for Clapp, Radmanovich and even Matt Stairs, who was a member of Canada’™s 1988 Olympic team in Seoul, Korea. The U.S. has nine players on its 30-man roster with previous Team USA experience, while about half of Canada’™s likely roster (the last spot or two was still up for grabs) has played for Canada’™s junior program. Other countries also have shown an ability to go back to certain players over and over again for national teams (see chart.)
Australia’™s roster, for example, returns many key players from its silver-medal run in 2004, and infielder Glenn Williams, who missed out in Athens but played for his country in World Cups and other international events.
“This tournament is very important for me because I didn’™t have the chance to represent Australia in the Olympics due to injury,” said Williams, whose $850,000 signing bonus with the Braves in 1992 remains a record for an Australian amateur. “It is always good to represent your country, but to be able to do it in the home of baseball against the world’™s very best players will be something. This may well be the best baseball tournament ever conducted, and I am looking forward to taking part in it with an Australian uniform on.”
Other countries have their regulars as well. Panama will not have Yankees closer Mariano Rivera, but they will have 40-year-old Len Picota, who went 16-8, 2.16 in 175 innings last season in Taiwan. Picota, a former Expos farmhand, has been a regular on Panama’™s World Cup and Olympic qualifying teams. Japan and Korea will use pitchers Tsuyoshi Wada and Byung-Hyun Kim, both professionals now (Kim with the Rockies), but both alumni of their amateur national teams.
Even the managers are often veterans of international play. While he’™s a Michigan native, Ernie Whitt played for the Blue Jays and has managed Team Canada both in the ‘™99 Pan Am Games and in 2004 in Athens, and he returns for the Classic as well.
However, he does not have all hands on deck. Stars such as righthanders Eric Gagne (Dodgers) and Rich Harden (Athletics), both coming off arm surgery, opted out, and catcher Russ Martin (Dodgers) bowed out to try to make an impression on new Los Angeles manager Grady Little.
And of course, Canada’™s best ever position player, Larry Walker, retired and instead will serve as a bench coach. In the last 20 years, times have changed for Canadians. In 1986, three years before Walker’™s debut with the Expos, just two Canadians played in the majors: Terry Puhl (Astros) and Kirk McCaskill (Angels).
By 2005, 19 Canadians played in the majors and 20 in 2004. That should make Canada more competitive. The entire starting lineup should have major league experience, led by Bay, Stairs, first baseman Justin Morneau (Twins) and 2004 Olympian Pete Orr (Braves). Canada’™s biggest concern offensively is a lack of righthanded hitters other than Bay, a problem exacerbated by the loss of Martin.
The pitching staff is predominantly lefthanded as well with former junior teamers Jeff Francis (Rockies) and Adam Loewen (Orioles) joining Erik Bedard (Orioles), who will fact Team USA in pool play, in the rotation. The bullpen features righthanders Chris Reitsma (Braves) and Jesse Crain (Twins), who was born in Toronto but whose family moved to the U.S. three months later. In fact, Crain pitched for Team USA in the 2003 Olympic qualifier in Panama.
“We’™ll have to see about getting him a Canadian flag tattoo,” Radmanovich said. “That will be Stubby’™s department.”
–BOB ELLIOTT, Toronto Sun
Kelly Leaves Managerial Pool
According to media reports in Latin America, former major leaguer Roberto Kelly withdrew as manager of Panama’™s entry in the World Baseball Classic, just two weeks before the team was set to take the field.
According to baseballlatino.net, Kelly was frustrated by what he perceived to be a lack of cooperation in putting the team together from Panama’™s baseball federation. He was in Arizona at Giants spring-training camp and decided to stay rather than go to Panama to assemble the Classic team. Kelly will manage low Class A Augusta in the Giants system for the second straight year. According to a Giants official, Panama had asked Kelly to reconsider and had not named a replacement.
• Kelly’™s departure still left the Classic with six managers with big league experience. Besides Whitt (Canada) and Buck Martinez (Team USA), fans of the major leagues will recognize the Netherlands’™ Robert Eenhoorn, a former Yankees infielder; China’™s manager Jim Lefebvre, a former Dodgers outfielder and Mariners manager; Mexico’™s Frank “Paquin” Estrada, who played one game for the Mets in 1971 and was later involved in the Nolan Ryan trade with the Angels; Puerto Rico’™s Jose Oquendo, a former Cardinals infielder; and Venezuela’™s Luis Sojo, most recently an infielder with the Yankees.
• In addition, former big leaguers are serving in support roles for several teams. Former career saves leader Lee Smith, a roving instructor with the Giants, was slated to serve as South Africa’™s pitching coach, while Bruce Hurst was assisting Lefebvre in the same capacity with China.
• Other managers with big league ties include Italy’™s Matt Galante, who is a special assistant for the Astros; Mets coach Manny Acta, who will pilot the Dominican Republic; South Africa’™s Rick Magnante, a scout for the Athletics; and Australia’™s John Deeble, a veteran of international play who is the Red Sox’™ Pacific Rim scout.
• Professional baseball’™s career home runs leader, Sadaharu Oh, will manage Japan’™s entry. Oh, who hit 868 home runs in a 22-year career with the Yomiuri Giants, has managed in Japan since 1995. Mexico’™s Estrada also is a giant in his country, having played 26 seasons in the Mexican League and having managed Mexico to the Caribbean Series championship in 2002. Other international veterans managing teams include Hua-Wei Lin of Taiwan and In-Sik Kim, who piloted Korea to the Olympic bronze medal in 2000. Cuba’™s manager will be Higino Velez, who managed the team to the 2004 Olympic gold in Athens.
• Cuba and the Asian clubs entered in the classic were the only ones training outside the U.S. prior to the tournament’™s actual start. Among the obvious ties between countries and training sites, Team Canada was going to work out in Dunedin, Fla., at the Blue Jays’™ complex. Australia, through Deeble’™s connection, will work out with the Red Sox in Fort Myers, Fla.