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Team USA leans on international vets

By Jim Callis

Todd Williams
Pan Am vet Todd Williams
Photo: Stan Denny

LOS ANGELES–Paul Seiler, executive director of USA Baseball, remembers well the attitude when the 1999 U.S. Pan American Games team convened for the first time.

Team USA’s first squad of professional players, coached by current Rockies manager Buddy Bell, gathered in the clubhouse at Tucson’s Hi Corbett Field. Seiler tried to prepare them for what to expect, but he could tell his message wasn’t sinking in.

"These are guys with years and years and years of baseball experience," Seiler said. "I’m telling them, ‘This is what you’re in for,’ and the look in their eyes was ‘What do you mean? Can we go out and play now?’ "

It took the opener for players and coaches to realize the Pan Am Games, which would determine the two Olympic qualifiers from the Americas, wouldn’t be a cakewalk. Canada stunned Team USA with four runs in the bottom of the 11th for a 7-6 victory.

"As the games went on, we realized how close the games were against teams that maybe we were supposed to beat up on," said reliever Todd Williams, who made five scoreless appearances in Winnipeg last summer. "As the games went on, we realized we had to win to get to the Olympics and realized if we didn’t, we were the ones to blame."

The United States got its Olympic bid–just barely. Team USA edged Mexico 2-1 in 10 innings in the semifinals to punch its ticket to Australia before losing 5-1 to Cuba in the gold-medal game.

Playing A Different Game

Winning the Olympics or even finishing second–something the United States has failed to do since baseball became a medal sport in 1992–is going to be significantly more difficult. To that end, the architects of the Olympic team placed a premium on international experience.

"I believe international experience means a whole lot," said Bob Watson, co-chairman of the selection committee. "The game is different than the pro game. I really believe playing for your country is a whole lot different than playing the pro game."

Watson is right. There’s an urgency to most games at international tournaments. One round-robin loss too many can keep a team out of the medal round, where the format is single-elimination and any misstep is fatal.

International play is different on the field as well. The pace of games is usually slower, as pitchers are more deliberate. Pitchers also use a wider variety of arm angles and rely on more breaking balls than in the U.S. Offensively, teams use little-ball techniques such as the bunt and the steal more frequently.

It’s no coincidence USA Baseball’s most successful two-year runs came in 1987-88 and 1995-96, when a nucleus of players from one summer returned the next. To that end, shortstop Gookie Dawkins, utilityman Shawn Gilbert, catcher Marcus Jensen, outfielder Mike Neill, lefthander Bobby Seay and Williams return after playing in the Pan Ams.

The number would have been higher had Winnipeg veterans Peter Bergeron, Milton Bradley, Adam Kennedy, Mark Mulder, Craig Paquette, Brad Penny and J.C. Romero not been promoted to the major leagues.

Experience Preferred

Team USA sought international experience from other competitions as well, and it’s conceivable half of the 24-man Olympic roster will consist of players who have represented the United States in the past.

Shortstop Adam Everett and first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz played for the U.S. college team as amateurs. Second baseman Brent Abernathy, lefthander Chris George, Seay, righthander Matt White and outfielder Brad Wilkerson were part of the national junior team (ages 16-18) as high schoolers.

Abernathy, White and Wilkerson are the only members of the Olympic team to have won gold medals, doing so at the 1995 World Junior Championship in Boston. Wilkerson was named MVP after hitting three homers and winning three games, including a three-hit shutout of Taiwan in the championship game. Abernathy was the only player to hit a ball over the Green Monster during medal play, while White no-hit Italy during pool play.

"You want a Brad Wilkerson from the junior team who has international experience," Seiler said. "He’s played Cuba. He understands the pressure.

"The pressure at the Junior Championships and the pressure at the Pan American Games is the same. The only difference is the age bracket."

The pressure at the Olympics will be something different altogether, but Team USA’s Pan Am veterans hope experience can take them to America’s first gold medal since 1988, when baseball was a demonstration sport.

"I felt like I had a good chance to make the team because I played last year," Williams said. "It will be good to have some guys from last year’s team back, because it should help the camaraderie in the clubhouse, and hopefully that will help us on the field."

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