Stakes Might Be Lower, But Playing For Team USA Still Resonates With Players

 Troy Glaus led the American League with 47 home runs in 2000 and claimed MVP honors at the 2002 World Series, but back in 1996 he was a star UCLA third baseman who helped the U.S. win a bronze medal at the Atlanta Olympics. (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn-Getty Images)

SEE ALSO: Summer College League Top Prospects

SEE ALSO: Collegiate National Team Top Prospects

Once upon a time, USA Baseball’s top-level team was the Collegiate National Team. It was collegians who represented the U.S. in top international baseball tournaments, from the Pan American Games to the first Olympics with baseball in it, in 1984 in Los Angeles. A dozen years later, players like Troy Glaus, Mark Kotsay, R.A. Dickey and Kris Benson won a bronze medal in Atlanta.

But the next year, the International Baseball Federation voted to end the amateurism restrictions that kept paid professionals out of international baseball tournaments, and the Collegiate National Team’s days as the pinnacle of USA Baseball were numbered.

USA Baseball sent a college team, coached by Ron Polk, to Italy in 1998 for the World Championships, but the U.S. failed to qualify for the medal round. The next year, in the Pan Am Games—which served as the 2000 Olympic qualifier—Team USA was filled with professionals.

In the meantime, summer collegiate baseball has exploded, with more options for college players than ever. Far beyond just the Cape Cod League and the old-school Alaska and Jayhawk leagues, leagues such as the Northwoods, Coastal Plain, West Coast and many others have grown and provided many more opportunities for college players to swing wood bats for scouts.

Through it all, USA Baseball has kept its college program intact, and it has remained a pinnacle for college players. Last year’s club produced 11 players drafted in the first round in 2017. This year’s club wasn’t as loaded but will produce its share of first-rounders.

Moreover, Team USA, as it’s colloquially known, keeps winning, and consistently remains a factor internationally. Clubs like the 2015 edition (which went 9-8) are the exception, not the rule.

It’s probably just a coincidence that some of the best editions of the CNT came in Olympic years. The 2000 club went 27-3-1; Mike Gillespie, head coach of a roster that featured future big league stars such as Mark Prior, Mark Teixeira and Ryan Howard, mused in Los Angeles that summer that he wished he could have taken his club to Sydney for the Olympics.

The 2004 team featured many of the college players who helped stoke a loaded 2005 draft, such as Alex Gordon, Troy Tulowitzki, Ryan Zimmerman and pitchers Mike Pelfrey and Ian Kennedy. And the 2008 team posted the best record in CNT history at 24-0 behind a star-studded rotation of Stephen Strasburg, Kyle Gibson, Mike Leake, Mike Minor and Andy Oliver. The team posted a 0.88 ERA in 24 games.

This year’s club couldn’t go undefeated; it lost a game to the Coastal Plain League select team, and took losses against Cuba, Japan and Taiwan. But the U.S. won all three of those international friendship series, which was the goal for national team director Eric Campbell and coach John Savage.

Campbell deserves the lion’s share of the credit for keeping the national team atop the summer collegiate food chain since taking his current role in 2005. This year’s coaching staff had a West Coast slant for the second straight year, with UCLA’s Savage joined by Long Beach State’s Troy Buckley, Cal Poly’s Larry Lee, Cal State Fullerton’s Rick Vanderhook and former Long Beach State and Loyola Marymount coach Dave Snow on the all-star coaching staff.

“Coach Savage and coach Buckley, they really understand the pitching and defense,” Campbell said. “(Snow) was with us last summer, too, so he understood who we were playing and gave us some continuity . . .

“Seth Beer didn’t have the summer he wanted, but he had the game-winning RBI in the first game of the Cuba series. Andrew Vaughn struggled early defensively at first base, but he made a big-time diving play to his right against Japan, and we probably don’t win that game without that play.

“(Vaughn) was the MVP of the Japan series. Grant Koch could have been MVP of that series with his hitting. Nick Madrigal could have been. Cadyn Grenier could have been, as his bat really emerged. It was team baseball.”

Ultimately, that’s the hallmark of the Collegiate National Team. It may not play for the high stakes that it used to, but its players are playing in front of decision-making scouts who pick Team USA alumni high in draft after draft, and of course playing for their teammates.

And they’re playing for their country. In an age when many players will advance to the minor leagues and play in uniforms emblazoned with such nicknames as the Jumbo Shrimp, Bacon, Plates and Tacos, it’s no wonder that playing with USA across their chest—even in a time of tumult in the country—has meaning.

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