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Watson pieces together Team USA


Bob Watson is building something bigger that the Yankees dynasty he constructed in the 1990s. Watson is the General Manager of the U.S. Olympic team that will compete for the gold medal in Beijing. He sat down with recently to talk about the latest edition of Team USA, former big leaguers who are not on the roster and whether or not this will be the final time baseball will be a part of the Olympics.

Holden Kushner: Do you think this is the last time baseball with be a part of the Olympics?

BW: I don't believe that. I believe that the Olympics will be back in '16. I believe that in '09 when baseball and softball are up for a vote again, that it will be a positive vote. Baseball lost out by three votes the last time that they had this thing and softball was in actually a tie. We feel that our people are doing some very good politicking and lobbying and they will come up with the four votes needed to have us reinstated. Now, this Olympics will go a long way in helping that for baseball, if we have an exciting, a clean -- no drug suspensions or violations -- Olympics, we'll be back in '16.

HK: But what made them say in particular that you're not going to have it in 2012?

BW: They were looking to reduce the number of participants in the Olympics. I think the number right now are somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,500 and they just wanted to reduce the number of participants. You take out a team sport like baseball and softball, you reduce the players, coaching staffs, and support staffs, you're talking about 100 less people involved.

HK: What's the big difference between putting together a team vying for a gold medal compared to one that's competing for the World Series?

BW: Well these guys that we take come from all aspects of our game. Some are rookies, some are veterans, some are guys who are six-year free agents. It's just the challenge of putting those together and giving manager Davey Johnson and his staff something to work with to hopefully win this thing. It is a moving target because guys are getting called up, getting hurt, getting traded and whatever, and those are the thing we have to deal with.

HK: So is the biggest obstacle trying to land a guy whose franchise doesn't want him to miss part of the minor-league season?

BW: I think what happens is you have to remember the No. 1 asset that everybody has is their pitching, especially their young pitching, and they are very protective of that young pitching. Even though we have an excellent pitching coach and excellent manager and I will make sure that we follow all their instructions, they just don't want to, a lot of times, give up their young guys.

HK: Is it a hard sell trying to get these top prospects away from their major-league clubs or do you just understand and say we'll have to deal with that player not on our roster?

BW: Ninety percent of the time, we'll just walk away. Now if there's a special guy that we might use a little bit of a hard sale. I think one of the guys we felt that way about this year was David Price. He's a guy that pitched for Team USA as a college player and was just phenomenal; he was the No. 1 pick for the Tampa Bay Rays. He got off to a start where he was hurt and you can understand that, but we went back and made a second call just to see if we could get him jarred away from them, but they said if they were still in the hunt, they might use him. They are going to call him up in August and see what he does to help them in their rotation.

HK: Bob, tell us a little bit about the process in constructing this team because it is a little bit different than constructing a major-league team.

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BW: Well, it starts in early, early spring. We'll come together and get a lot of names. I think we started this year with something like 843 names. We instruct our scouts. We use ourselves as a staff, we use our scouting bureau, and we have some help of some major-league scouts that are with other organizations that help us because they are very patriotic and we go from there. We have to get down from 800 to 100 then to 60 in late June and then we have to get to 24 as we did on July 16

HK: You've got a kid from college on this roster, mostly minor leaguers, and then there's guys like the Kenny Loftons and the Mike Piazzas. Were any veteran players that weren't picked up this year even considered for this team or are you just going in a different direction?

BW: You know, those names came up. I think if they were playing somewhere. It's hard enough to play this game and you can't turn it on and off, so for them to be playing somewhere, when I say playing somewhere, it has to be in the minor leagues, getting some at-bats. They couldn't just be working out and then come and play for us. They have to be playing and none of those guys are playing so we just went on in a different direction.

HK: You mentioned a potential pitfall here as some of these guys are getting called up and I believe Taylor Teagarden who's on your roster, was called up as well. Yeah, you're laughing right now, so what's the backup plan, Bob?

BW: Well, we will see. There is another cut-off date. Guys who are being called up, after being named on our 24-man roster have to be back down in the minor leagues by July 22, the end of business on the 22nd. So, if Mr. Teagarden is back, all is well but if he's not then we have to go to Plan B and go to one of the other catchers that we have on our 60-man provincial roster.

HK: Why is Davey Johnson the right man to manage this team?.

BW: We approached Davey at the right time in his life. He had had some personal tragedy in his life back in '04, and we went to him in '05 with an opportunity to manage our Team USA. We were in the World Cup over in the Netherlands. He said, "Sure." Actually, in '04, he helped out the Dutch in the Olympics. He was the assistant coach for Robert Eenhoorn and so he had some experience managing internationally and he came on board. We went for it and I think since he's been on board with this, I think he's 26-2. He just seemed to be the right man, at the right time, at the right place. He deals great with young kids

HK: Have you ever been to China?

BW: Yeah, as a matter of fact, before baseball, I went there on business when I was taking a sabbatical for a bit in '99 and I've been 4 times with putting together this team and also the exhibitions with the Padres and the Dodgers. I'm in charge of all fields that major-league property plays on and so I had to make sure it was up to our standards.

HK: What are the playing surfaces like over there?

BW: The playing surface for the Olympics will be major-league quality. We can't have guys playing on skin infields. A lot of their fields are like softball infields, but what we are going to play on are major-league regulation fields.

HK: Do they have any idea what Major League Baseball is over there?

BW: Not really. I'll tell you who's helped that whole program over there is the ex-major leaguer and manager, Jim Lefebvre. He has worked for Major League Baseball in helping the Chinese National team become very, very competitive. Will they win the gold? No, but they have come a long way, even from when they played in the World Classic. They will be a gracious host for us.