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Golden Opportunity

Team USA takes advantage of new Olympic realities

By John Manuel

SYDNEY–In the bowels of Homebush Baseball Stadium, John Ostermeyer took Paul Seiler’s hand and congratulated him for a job well done.

"It was 10 years ago just the other day when I made the motion we go to open," said Ostermeyer, an Australian who is now the secretary general of the International Baseball Federation. "And I only got one vote, and you didn’t even vote for me."

Seiler, USA Baseball’s executive director, had just watched the team of American minor leaguers he helped assemble beat Cuba 4-0 for the 2000 Olympic gold medal. He smiled at the irony of Ostermeyer’s statement, and thanked him for his support in helping open the Olympics to professional players. The IBAF ratified that decision on Sept. 21, 1996, little more than four years before the Americans won their first gold since baseball became a full-medal sport in 1992.

The 1999 Pan American Games in Winnipeg, Manitoba, gave the world a glimpse of what international baseball would look like with pros dotting the rosters. The Olympics proved the move a success.

"It was absolutely the best tournament in international baseball history," Seiler said. "There’s no question, and I don’t say that just because the United States won the gold medal."

The more than 245,000 fans who came to the tournament saw a string of upsets as pro players and wood bats leveled the playing field. Cuba had its 21-game winning streak in Olympic play ended by the Netherlands, which subsequently gave South Africa its first Olympic win.

"This has been my greatest moment in baseball," said Dutch shortstop Robert Eenhoorn, a former New York Yankee, after his team beat Cuba 4-2. "This whole tournament has been amazing. Cuba is a good team, but the Americans look tough and they play the way I play, American ball. But you can see most of the teams here can play, and I think this win proves we can play with anyone."

Successful Experiment

The tournament proved a lot of things, first and foremost that the United States could bring a team and staff of professionals and win an Olympic medal.

Seiler admitted his team wasn’t a Dream Team, calling it "an ugly group. We didn’t have a Ferrari, but we got it done." By getting it done, Team USA ensured the future of baseball in the Olympics, ending any speculation the sport could be dropped from the Games due to American apathy.

To a man, the U.S. players said they enjoyed the experience of playing in the Olympics. They weren’t the only pros who were impressed. Japan first baseman Nobuhiko Matsunaka, who plays for the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks in Japan’s Pacific League, said he would return to play in the Olympics if given the chance, despite his country’s disappointing fourth-place finish.

"It’s just a unique experience, and there’s nothing like it anywhere else in the game," Seiler said. "When Pat Borders, a 12-year big league veteran, tells you what a great time he’s having and it’s one of his best experiences in the game, that tells you we’ve done something right."

Team USA and Japan weren’t the only clubs that benefited from pro players, as every team but Cuba featured some. Korea rallied from a 1-3 start, beating Japan twice and winning the bronze, its first Olympic baseball medal. Korea’s major league, the Korea Baseball Organization, shut down for three weeks so the nation could send an all-star team to Australia.

The Dutch scored the tournament’s first great upset by beating Cuba behind a three-run double by former Yankee Hensley Meulens. They got eight quality innings from former Giants farmhand Ken Brauckmiller, and former big league outfielder Rikkert Faneyte came out of center field to close the game on the mound.

Even South Africa, which upset the Netherlands for its first Olympic victory, had help from a pro. Righthander Tim Harrell, who went 7-7, 5.00 this summer for the Dodgers’ Class A Vero Beach affiliate, went 10 innings to beat the Dutch.

See You In Athens

The gold medal and good vibes should ensure continued cooperation between Major League Baseball, the MLB Players Association and USA Baseball. That cooperation was a major factor in Team USA’s victory, but it started in 1999 at the Pan Am Games. Seiler gave that team, coaching staff and selection committee chairman Pat Gillick much of the credit for the success of the 2000 edition.

"When we got that last out, all I could think about was Buddy Bell, Jackie Moore, (Marcel) Lachemann, Pat Gillick, Mike Neill’s hit (against Mexico), the clutch pitching by J.C. Romero and Dan Wheeler," Seiler said. "I wanted to call Buddy and tell him he should have been on that medal stand for what he did. They factor into our success directly."

While the 2000 tournament took place in a Triple-A caliber ballpark with almost 14,000 fans packing the stands each game, the 2004 Games in Athens, Greece, don’t engender nearly as much confidence. The Greeks don’t play much baseball but will have an automatic spot in the tournament if they want it. The makeup of the tournament has yet to be determined, but USA Baseball was among the governing bodies arguing for more teams from the Americas making the tournament field.

One thing will be certain in Athens, though. After beating Cuba for the gold medal, Team USA will have different players but will be the Olympic favorite.

"What this tournament proved about the Cubans is they’re human," Seiler said. "They’ve always been good, and if things stay the same there, they will still be very good in 2004. But I think we proved they can be beaten."

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