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Borders relishes Olympic duties

By John Manuel

LOS ANGELES–For Pat Borders, the 2000 Olympics represent a world with new challenges he never thought he would experience.

For Team USA manager Tommy Lasorda, Borders represents the opposite: stability, familiarity, security. On a roster of minor leaguers assembled from 19 organizations, the veteran catcher is one player Lasorda is familiar with. The 72-year-old manager is counting on the 37-year-old Borders to help guide his team to a gold medal.

"We didn’t just want an old guy to go out there," Lasorda said. "He absolutely can play. He’s playing well this year and will be able to not only help our pitching staff but help our offense."

The oldest member of the Olympic team, Borders probably wouldn’t have made the team had former all-star catcher Terry Steinbach remained healthy. Steinbach expressed interest in the Olympic team after retiring last year, and he had been playing his way into shape in a semipro league in Minnesota when he tore his hamstring in a water-skiing accident.

That left the door open for Borders, who had hit .276-12-54 at Triple-A Durham this year. At the beginning of the season, Borders wasn’t even sure he wanted to continue his career, but the chance to play in the Olympics has made the decision pay off.

"In the winter I wasn’t sure, but my kids are getting old enough that they wanted to see me keep playing," said Borders, who has five children–Lindsay (9), Levi (7), Luke (6), Laura (4) and Leah (2). "I still enjoy playing, and it’s turned out to be a really good idea.

"I just like playing. You always want to be in the big leagues, but I’m having fun playing without all the pressure, being on TV and all those frills. I enjoy playing here as much as in the big leagues, maybe more."

Winning Record

When Borders first got the letter from USA Baseball informing him he was under consideration for the Olympic team, he filed it away in the "if I’m not in the big leagues, this might be a good idea" folder, like the rest of the minor leaguers contacted. And when he was officially selected, he accepted the invitation.

But the gravity of the situation didn’t hit him until he reached the Regal Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles, to attend the press conference when the team was announced. That’s where he met Sandy Alderson, Bill Bavasi, Paul Seiler and Bob Watson, the primary architects of the Olympic team.

"It was a pretty easy decision to play," Borders said. "I thought it would be a lot of fun. But when I got out here, I saw it was kind of serious. You look at the people associated with this, you can see we’ve got to play pretty well. We want to win when we go down there."

Borders has plenty of experience with winning, from his two World Series with the Blue Jays to backing up Sandy Alomar in 1997-98 with the Indians. Durham was leading the International League’s Southern Division for the third straight season, and manager Bill Evers said Borders was a big reason for the team’s sharp play.

"He’s getting an opportunity to play here every day, and he’s taking advantage of it," Evers said. "He’s got a lot of experience, and you’d hope what he knows will help some of the younger pitchers on our staff. He’s swinging the bat well, and he’s a good guy to have around. He knows what you need to do to be successful in this game."

Borders emerged as a clubhouse leader for a Durham team that has featured prospects such as righthanders Travis Harper, Dan Wheeler and Matt White (a fellow Olympian), catcher Toby Hall and third baseman Aubrey Huff.

"I remember when I first saw him in the clubhouse, I was like, ‘Wow, I’m on the same team as a World Series MVP,’ " Huff said. "Now he’s just one of the guys . . . but he plays hard as hell. He’s really serious out there, and he knows how to win."

Team USA’s Crash Davis

Borders spent 10 consecutive years in the big leagues before spending parts of the 1998 and ’99 seasons in Triple-A, and he has served as the Bulls’ new Crash Davis for all of 2000. He acknowledged he likely will fill a similar role for Lasorda in Sydney. The experience of working with minor league pitchers has prepared him to work with Team USA’s mound corps, composed primarily of hard-throwing Double-A pitchers.

"It’s a young staff, but you have to treat each individual differently," Borders said. "You can really judge them when they’re out on the mound and see how they perform under pressure. A lot of older guys will panic in a situation where a younger guy can be fearless."

As an older guy Borders doesn’t expect to panic, but he admitted he didn’t know what to expect from the Olympics. He hasn’t played in a tournament format since he starred in football and baseball at Lake Wales (Fla.) High. And while he has experienced baseball at its highest level, he knows the Olympics are something altogether different.

"I’ve watched the Olympics before on TV, and I never like to see the United States lose at anything," he said. "When I played in the World Series I guess I was representing Canada, but this is all of my country. You’re not just letting down your city or your fans if you lose. You don’t have next year. You won’t have another chance. It’s a lot of preparation and work that has gone on for more than three years for just nine games.

"I’ve played in a World Series and now this. What more could I ask from baseball? The World Series and the Olympics are two different things, but they are comparable. How much? I’ll let you know when I get there."

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