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Building a winner—they hope

By Will Lingo


Bob Watson, Tommy Lasorda, Bill Bavasi,
Rod Dedeaux and Paul Seiler
Photo: Larry Goren

No offense to John Cotton, but this isn’t what the world was expecting.

When the International Baseball Federation opened international competition to professionals after the 1996 Olympics, visions of dream teams danced in everyone’s heads.

As that dream gave way to major league reality, fans held out hope that perhaps the team would include, if not all-stars, a few big leaguers who really wouldn’t be missed in September.

The Pan American Games showed the dream was just that. The United States holds its brand of baseball above anything else, even the Olympics. No way would an international competition halfway around the world disrupt the sacred season, even if the Olympic movement does hold itself in as high esteem as baseball does.

"We didn’t even take the possibility of major league players taking part in the Olympics into consideration," said Sandy Alderson, Major League Baseball’s executive vice president for baseball operations. "At this point we’re not ready to hold up the regular season and postseason. We have not felt it appropriate.

"In the right circumstances, putting aside major league players might be possible, but we have yet to see those circumstances. We are excited about promoting the international appeal of the game."

The Pan Am team that played in Winnipeg was anonymous to the casual fan, and made even Baseball America readers wonder where some of these guys had come from or where they had been.

Even then, many people thought the Pan Am team was just a B team heading to Canada to get the United States a spot in the Olympics. Once its job was done, a more glamorous Team USA would swoop in to get America charged up about a Miracle on Grass, right?

Wrong. The team that will wear "USA" across its chest in Sydney will be about the same caliber as the one that went to Winnipeg. The team will have one notable, semi-retired baseball celebrity in the dugout, but he’ll take the field only to exchange lineup cards and argue.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The Pan Am team gave Cuba a challenge, and this team will too. Australia, Japan and Korea will have talented teams, but Team USA has the talent to beat any of them.

And whether fans like it or not, this is the best team USA Baseball could have put together–with a few arguments–given the pool of players it had to choose from. The people making the selections have spent a hard season winnowing essentially all of the minor leagues down to 29 players.

They’ve done their jobs. Now it’s the team’s turn.

"Given our experience last year at the Pan American Games, this is sure to be as exciting as anything I’ve experienced in baseball, and I participated in three World Series as a front-office executive," Alderson said.

Yes, a funny thing happened on the way to Winnipeg. The Team USA nobody wanted turned out to be pretty good and pretty easy to root for.

The United States lost once in pool play at the Pan Ams, a 13-inning stunner to Canada in the first game of the tournament. Team USA even beat Cuba in the preliminaries, before the Cubans turned on their A game in the medal round and beat Canada 3-2 and the U.S. 5-1. Team USA got the job done, though, winning silver and a berth for Sydney.

"The intensity level was unbelievable last year, and we did a good job to get into the Olympics at last year’s tournament," said righthander Todd Williams, a Mariners farmhand who will return to the Olympic squad.

The feeling was bittersweet, though. Team USA won, but it lost, giving it a rallying cry for Sydney: Second place isn’t good enough. (That has now been replaced by manager Tommy Lasorda’s oft-repeated line: "I’m not going 6,000 miles to lose.")

"Our goal now isn’t second place, though, it’s to win the gold," Williams said. "That’s our first objective. As the tournament went on, we realized how close the games were. We realized we had to work hard to win and we didn’t want to be the guys to blow the chance of getting the United States in the Olympics. Once we reached the medal round, that took a lot of pressure off our backs."

The Pan Am tournament accomplished two important goals, aside from the obvious one of getting Team USA into the Olympics. It showed professional players and executives, many of whom had no experience (or interest) in international baseball, that international competition was something special.

Outfielder Mike Neill, a minor league veteran now in the Mariners organization, felt the intensity more than anyone. He drove in the winning run against Mexico in the Pan Am semifinals (for more on Neill’s hit, see Page 23) and said the pressure was unlike any he had ever experienced in the game.

"Getting selected again, the guys who experienced the Pan Am Games realized what we’re in for," he said. "It’s much more serious. The baseball is unbelievably competitive."

And it proved to the people picking the team, many of whom returned to help select the Olympic squad, that America had good players beyond the big leaguers and top prospects.

"Our experience with the Pan Am games demonstrated that below the tier of the major leagues, there are a lot of players very similar in ability," Alderson said. "They have not had the spotlight shone on them, but several have since established themselves in the big leagues. One of the things that’s interesting for us to see is who seizes the moment and comes out of the pack from the Olympic team."

Indeed, many of the Pan Am players are now in the big leagues. Angels fans probably don’t know that rookie second baseman Adam Kennedy hit .367 in the Pan Ams. Other players saw their stock as prospects shoot up. Gookie Dawkins was a raw, young shortstop in low Class A before the Pan Am Games. Later in 1999 and again this year, he played in the big leagues.

"We had 11 guys after the Pan Am games go to the big leagues," said Bob Watson, who was on the Pan Am selection committee and along with Bill Bavasi led the process for the Olympic team. "We had no idea when we selected them. Some of those guys resurrected their careers."

With that promising foundation, USA Baseball’s selection committee started the process of picking an Olympic team in spring training. The committee knew it would have access only to players who wouldn’t be in the big leagues in September, so it started there.

Big leaguers were out. Players expected to be in the big leagues were out. Even Dawkins, who ended up on the team, was marked off-limits by the Reds for much of the season.

The selection committee sent out a simple form letter to about 100 players it wanted to consider for the team: If you are nominated, will you serve? The players just had to sign it and send it back.

Most of them did. That wasn’t the problem. The problem was they started dropping like flies, at least from USA Baseball’s perspective.

Promotions brought many of the top candidates for the team to the big leagues. The trade deadline only made it worse. When the Rockies gave up on the season, righthander Craig House and outfielder Juan Pierre got their opportunities in Colorado. And the aforementioned Cotton got to go to Sydney.

Realistically, the selection committee expected a lot of the promotions. Lefthander Barry Zito of the Athletics was a prime Team USA candidate, but even at the all-star break officials were pretty sure he would be gone.

Because the Games in Sydney are in September, though, the effect was amplified, probably more than even the selection committee expected. Another six weeks of promotions took away a significant number of players. Even those who emerged this year, like White Sox lefthander Mark Buehrle, were gone before Team USA could get them. Any follow list the selection committee had coming into the year went through significant revisions.

"In amateur scouting, you have follows for the next year," Alderson said. "The players during the last year who were on our follow list, I’d say just a few of them are on this team.

"A lot of the young pitchers on this team developed quickly and weren’t on that list last year. They’re having breakthrough seasons, guys like (Astros righthander Roy) Oswalt and (White Sox righthander Jon) Rauch. Take Oswalt. The Astros didn’t even think they wanted him in Double-A. Then he pitched so well there, they kept him there, and he’s pitched his way onto this team."

Injuries also played a part. Mariners lefthander Ryan Anderson and Pirates righthander Bobby Bradley would have been prime candidates for the team if not for their arm woes this season.

And, of course, there’s the issue of whether organizations were willing to cooperate and contribute players to the cause. While officials said they got "95 percent" cooperation, teams like the Yankees did block access to players who probably should have been available for the Games.

"When you’re dealing with 30 different clubs, and talking about several different players, you’re going to have differences of opinion," Alderson said. "With this going on in September with 40-man rosters, some of the players are subject to callup with their teams participating in pennant races. There were other isolated incidents, very limited, where we had no access to players."

At the same time, the committee was looking at older players, recently retired big leaguers who could provide leadership and experience. Such players as Orestes Destrade, Pat Kelly, Tim Raines and Terry Steinbach got serious consideration, but none made the cut.

Most of the players mentioned as candidates either weren’t interested or weren’t in shape. Those who made it to the end came close to making the team, but the committee ultimately decided the younger minor leaguers had more to contribute.

"I personally saw all of the veterans with scouting trips to go see Steinbach, Raines, Destrade and Kelly," Watson said. "Raines went down to our last conference call, just about, before we took him off the board. To a number of guys, I really should say thank you to them for cranking it up mentally and physically one more time. It wouldn’t be fair to have a couple on the club just because of who they were."

Aside from the players who weeded themselves out, the selection committee gradually brought the number of candidates down toward 30 as the Aug. 23 roster announcement drew near. The roster changed daily, if not hourly, as the deadline approached and players were called up or set aside by their organizations.

This resulted in at least one embarrassing situation, with first baseman Mark Johnson of Triple-A Norfolk thinking he was on the team, only to find out later that he wasn’t. Several sources, including the Tides, released rosters with his name on it, but the Mets apparently pulled him back at the last minute so he could provide a lefthanded bat off their bench in September.

All those troubles and snafus aside, what did we end up with?

"We wanted to give Tommy the best chance to have a good defensive team with some foot speed," Watson said. "We also wanted a little power. Last year’s club was a little short on power. What we found is a lot of power is in the big leagues."

The strength of the team should lie with its pitching, which features several good power arms and crafty veterans with good control.

"Going through the pitching, we looked for both," Bavasi said. "It’s not always easy to tell in each pitcher’s (radar gun) numbers whether he’s doing a good job pitching or not. We have some power guys but we also have some command guys. With the teams we’re going up against, we felt command was very important."

Bavasi said the team will have a big league-caliber player at every position in the field. Alderson added that he expects the team to have more offensive punch than the Pan Am squad, which struggled to score runs in the medal round.

"Part of the process was influenced by our Pan Am experience," Alderson said. "We were looking for a little more power and maybe a little less versatility. We wanted more offense, but we found a lot of that was in the big leagues, and we sort of had to get by with what was available. I think we preserved some of the versatility we had on last year’s club.

"I think we’re pleased with the makeup of this team. We wanted experience, ability and tools that come together in performance. I think our team will exhibit the tremendous depth of pro ball in the States."

Lasorda said the committee did a "super, super job," but he’s glad to have that part of the process over. Now he wants to take the players USA Baseball is giving him and see what they can do.

"I just hope and pray that when we return from Sydney, we’re gonna be a very, very happy bunch ’cause we’re gonna have the gold medal with us," he said.

Lasorda paints a hopeful picture, but only until we see the players on the field will we know if major league organizations gave Team USA enough to work with.

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