Second baseman Jayson Nix (Rockies) has been a prospect for a while, and for some he stopped being a prospect a while ago. he hit .213 in his first crack at Double-A, back in 2004, and spent the last two seasons at Triple-A Colorado Springs. After struggling there in 2006, when he hit just .251/.317/.313, Nix bounced back with a solid ’07 season, hitting .292/.342/.451 with 33 doubles and 24 stolen bases.
Nix finished up his bounce-back season in style at the 2007 World Cup, as he had two hits and two RBIs in the championship game and was named tournament MVP as the United States won its first gold medal in any kind of World Cup since 1974. Nix made key defensive plays throughout the tournament at second base and hit .387 with a team-best nine runs scored, two homers and six RBIs.
He was part of an explosive American offense that backed up the tournament’s top pitching staff on its way to an 8-1 record in the event. Team USA batted .286 with a .519 slugging percentage and 14 home runs. On the mound, Team USA posted a 1.04 ERA, though with 13 unearned runs allowed, the run average was 2.54. Team USA outscored opponents 50-22; by comparison, Cuba outscored teams 59-22, but head to head, for the second straight year, Team USA was better. With a much-different roster, the U.S. beat Cuba 8-5 in the gold-medal game last summer in the 2006 Olympic qualifier in Havana, Cuba. USA Baseball CEO Paul Seiler admits he cannot recall Team USA beating Cuba in back-to-back years for gold medals in his 20 years with the organization.
Former big league manager Davey Johnson has piloted the last three professional Teams USA, and in an e-mail interview, Seiler credited that continuity and team-building ability as being huge factors in the program’s success.
"I cannot stress enough how important this benefit has been to our organization and recent successes," Seiler said. "The rapport that Davey and this staff has, including the administrative staff, sets the tone for the players and really provides a sense of leadership and experience that is so important in international play.
"Our biggest challenge is having these players become a team in the truest sense of the word as quickly as possible, because if they do not we will not be successful. As I told our delegation on the bus last night after the game, teams win. And we won this World Cup because we are/were a team."
Now all sides move on. Japan puts its big leaguers on the field next month in the Asian Olympic qualifier. In March, Taiwan again plays host to an important tournament with the "second chance" Olympic qualifier, featuring Australia, Canada, Mexico, Great Britain, Span, South Africa and the second- and third-place teams from the Asia qualifier. The event’s timing has angered nations such as Canada, as having the event at the beginning of spring training makes the chances of landing top prospects from MLB organizations highly unlikely.
Then, next August, the last Olympic baseball tournament on the docket, the 2008 Beijing games. Host China, Cuba, the Netherlands and the U.S. are in, with one qualifier to come from Asia next month and three from the "second-chance" qualifier. Since baseball became a medal sport in 1992 in Barcelona, Cuba has won three gold medals, the U.S. one.
Since the U.S. began using professionals internationally, with the 1999 Pan American Games, it has used affiliated players in seven IBAF-sanctioned events: ’99 Pan Ams (an Olympic qualifying tournament); 2000 Olympics, 2001, ’05 and ’07 World Cups; 2005 regional qualifying tournament; and ’03 and ’06 Olympic qualifiers. The U.S. has won four of those events, including its last three–’05 regional qualifier, ’06 Olympic qualifier and ’07 World Cup. In other words, since Mexico beat the U.S. in ’03 in Panama to eliminate Team USA from the ’04 Athens Olympic field, the Americans have failed to win an IBAF-sanctioned international tournament once–the ’05 World Cup in the Netherlands. A quick look at that roster indicates just how weak that team was, relative to the club that won this year’s World Cup.
If the U.S. wants to win Olympic gold next summer, then, it must get cooperation from MLB organizations to have the best talent available. With strong rosters, Team USA has shown it can beat Cuba when it matters most. This World Cup was just the latest example.
Here’s who joined Nix on the World Cup all-tournament team:
C: Sidney De Jong, Netherlands. 1B: Yasuyuki Saigo, Japan. 2B: Jayson Nix, USA. 3B: Efren Rodriguez, Mexico. SS: Si Hyun Son, Korea. OF: Frederich Cepeda, Cuba; Trent Oeltjen, Australia; Colby Rasmus, USA. DH: Max De Biase, Italy. P: Aroldis Chapman, Cuba; Takashi Settsu, Japan. MVP: Nix. Outstanding Defensive Player: Hainley Statia, Netherlands.