Manuel: USA Baseball’s Best Of Times

Three years ago, USA Baseball’s future appeared to be in serious doubt. That’s why the last six months have seemed so sweet to USA Baseball CEO Paul Seiler.

Now, junior national team director Ray Darwin takes Team USA’s 18-and-under squad to Cuba to try to win a gold medal at the World Junior Championships, which begin this weekend, and the team could finish off a remarkable year for the organization. It has fielded four teams in high-level international events this summer–the second women’s World Cup, the FISU World University Championship, the Americas Olympic qualifier and the COPABE Pan American Championship–and won them all.

“I told Ray that we’d set the bar pretty high for him,” Seiler said last week. “I guess he is going for one for the thumb.”

A summer of success at the amateur level has followed USA Baseball’s success off the field. The organization has partnered with Major League Baseball, with MLB making a financial guarantee to USA Baseball every year to fund its athletic programs. The move not only secures USA Baseball’s financial future, but also signifies the trust that USA Baseball has earned from major league organizations since it began using professional players in 1999.

To cap it off, USA Baseball’s new $10 million headquarters in North Carolina is nearing completion, with 2007 marking the first year the organization will be able to hold trials for its national teams at its own complex.

It’s a long way from November 2003, when Team USA had a roster of professionals (featuring the likes of Joe Mauer and Grady Sizemore, among others) that failed to qualify for the 2004 Olympics. Team USA sat out, USA Baseball lost much of its funding from the U.S. Olympic Committe, and the future of the organization seemed cloudy at best. Not anymore.

“It has been a good year,” Seiler said after Team USA qualified for the 2008 Olympics by beating host Cuba and finishing first in the 2006 Americas Olympic Qualifier. “If I had to pick three highlights of my tenure at USA Baseball, I’d definitely rank the bus-ride home after qualifying (after Team USA beat Panama in Cuba) right up there with the ’95 junior team at Fenway Park, which was just a special group and a special feeling, and Sydney 2000, because winning Olympic gold is the pinnacle of what we do.

“But that bus ride home was just filled with such positive energy, with some relief mixed in. Beating Cuba to win the thing was just icing on the cake, but it did make me think what a great year we’ve had–so far.”

The junior team is hardly an afterthought for USA Baseball. It’s a program that has produced a stunning amount of big leaguers, if not a stunning amount of gold medals. One game we like to play at BA (OK, I like to play it) is to go through old Almanacs and see who’s been who’s teammate at the junior level.

Like in 1997, when Team USA’s top three players were Mike Cuddyer (the only one of the trio who didn’t pitch), Austin Kearns and Rick Ankiel. Or in 2001, when the rotation featured three stud lefthanders in J.P. Howell, Scott Kazmir and Jeremy Sowers, with a third baseman who excelled defensively and hit .278–Huston Street. Or most famously, perhaps, the 2002 junior team lineup, whose 2-5 hitters were all first-round picks in 2003–Chris Lubanski, Lastings Milledge, Delmon Young and Ian Stewart. The roster also featured Jarrod Saltalamacchia.

But none of those teams won gold for the juniors. The last two to do so were the ’99 unit, led by Jeff Baker, Dave Krynzel and Drew Meyer, and the ’95 team. Seiler was junior-national team director for a team that helped launch the career of its star, Brad Wilkerson, who was the team’s top hitter and No. 2 starter (behind infamous bonus baby Matt White).

The talent on those clubs that didn’t win gold shows that while winning medals is a priority for USA Baseball, so is athlete development. Baker went on to a pair of college national team rosters, while junior team veterans such as Milledge (2005 World Cup), Saltalamacchia (recent Olympic qualifier) and Wilkerson (2000 Olympic team) went on to success to USA Baseball professional rosters.

Winning gold for the junior team would do more than give the U.S. a sweep for the summer and one for the thumb, but it also would give USA Baseball a rare chance to claim superiority over a Cuban baseball program that has rightfully considered itself the best in the world. Cuba has owned the U.S. from one level to the next since Sydney and even finished stronger in the World Baseball Classic, but Team USA has had the better of the rivalry this summer. While the college Team USA didn’t play Cuba, it won its gold medal on Cuba’s turf, and the youth national team beat Cuba 8-5 en route to its championship, played in Venezuela.

In other words, 2003 is starting to feel like a long time ago. A victory for the junior national team would make 2006 feel like the best of times for an organization that has worked so hard to move forward since that disappointment.