On the Fourth of July the United States Olympic baseball team played the Stan Musial All-Stars in Battle Creek, Mich. Last December, before the 1984 Winter Olympics, the U.S. hockey team had played the Canadian team in Battle Creek. The U.S. baseball team performed to a screaming, overflow crowd of 7,200. The hockey team drew 2,100, a little more than half the building.
Forget about phony hoopla and false hopes. This is the real America's Team, and it will play America's Sport at America's Olympics. In a possible prelude to achieving full medal status for baseball at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, the U.S. and seven other countries—Chinese-Taipei, South Korea, Japan, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Canada and Italy—will stage a demonstration of the sport at Dodger Stadium from July 31 through Aug. 7, with each team playing four games before the semifinals.
The all-collegiate U.S. contingent is nothing less than the finest amateur team ever assembled in this country. You want credentials? Fifteen of the 25 players (the squad will be reduced to 20 men this week) were first-round selections in the June major league draft. Among the others is first baseman Will Clark, a draft-ineligible Mississippi State sophomore whose swing is the very embodiment of The Natural's. You want results? Little more than halfway through a series of one-night stands that would exhaust a vaudeville troupe, America's Team has run up a 16-2-1 record, with four victories over the esteemed South Korean national team and one apiece over Class AAA clubs in Louisville and Rochester.
"When people start shouting spontaneously, 'U!S!A!, U!S!A!,' it can be spine-tingling," says Rod Dedeaux, the U.S. coach from USC who's also the team's biggest cheerleader. "Everywhere we go, we're the home team," says leftfielder Chris Gwynn, a San Diego State sophomore and the brother of Padre All-Star Tony. Even University of Maine pitcher Billy Swift, who originally balked at joining the Olympic team when he was made the second selection in the entire draft by the Mariners (SCORECARD, June 18), has come around. "I changed my mind when I got with the guys," he says. "I mean, we're the best in the country."
Even the opponents seem thrilled to play Team U.S.A. Says Tom Harris, an Ohio State first baseman whose central Ohio collegiate team was held to one hit in a 4-0 loss last Thursday night in Columbus, "I've been looking forward to this game ever since they asked me to play in it two or three weeks ago. When it rained this morning, I almost cried."
A rainout, in fact, may be the best hope for the opposition. In Fenway Park last Friday, the Olympians walloped a Boston park league team 17-2. Clark smashed three taters, and gargantuan first baseman Mark McGwire of USC bounced a shot off the concrete wall above the centerfield fence. "That's a major league dinger," the Angels' Reggie Jackson, who was waiting to play the Red Sox, told McGwire when he entered the dugout. "But you need to work on that trot. Take more time getting out of the box."
More than 3,000 candidates, including a 12-year-old girl and a 43-year-old man, participated in 63 open one-day tryouts that began last fall, and from the masses Dedeaux and his staff have assembled a team that is impressive from top to bottom. The largest player is the 6'5", 220-pound McGwire, whom Minnesota scouting director George Brophy compares to Dave Kingman. McGwire, 20, hit 31 homers for USC this season and was Oakland's No. 1 draft pick. The smallest player on the team is 5'9", 165-pound Oddibe McDowell, 21, a bubbly centerfielder and leadoff man who was Baseball America's collegiate Player of the Year this season at Arizona State. He was the Rangers' No. 1 pick last month, the sixth time in his amateur career he had been drafted.
McGwire and McDowell may be the long and short of it, but they certainly aren't all of it. The pitching staff alone features eight first-round picks including Seton Hall's and Cincinnati's Pat Pacillo, who throws a 93-mph fastball; North Carolina's and Kansas City's Scott Bank-head, who has struck out 29 batters in his last 16 innings, and Fresno State's and Baltimore's John Hoover, who had an 18-2 record and a 1.83 earned run average this season.
The U.S. players spit sunflower seeds during games and afterward mock each other with raucous, often obscene songs. The tone for the team is set by Dedeaux, who writes down every breach of fundamentals during games and later shouts to the bus driver, "Move 'em out, bussie—these are the young Yanks! Pillage the village!"
"I don't see how we can miss getting the gold," says McGwire. "The only team that could have competed with us was the Cubans. It's too bad they're boycotting. The teams we're playing just can't compete with our power."
For all his cheerleading, Dedeaux doesn't want his players to be too confident. "We've won only one international tournament in the last 10 years," he says. "The Japanese won't have more than six collegiate players, the rest coming from their terrific industrial leagues. The Nicaraguans defeated us in the 1983 Pan Am Games. The Dominicans have about 50 players in the big leagues, and it's a cinch the majors didn't sign all the good ones. And the two best amateur pitchers in the world may be Chih-Chun Li of Chinese-Taipei and Dung Sun of South Korea." Resting a sore arm, Sun has pitched only 1‚Öî innings in exhibitions against the U.S. but is expected to be ready for Los Angeles.
By the time the U.S. team had left Boston for its appearance at this week's major league All-Star Game, it had played 19 games in 21 days, and the players were routinely getting 5 a.m. wake-up calls for flights and bus trips. "Sleep? What's that?" said catcher John Marzano, a Temple junior who was the Red Sox' No. 1 pick. Even so, the players keep their cool, sign autographs and somehow abstain from chewing tobacco. "A lot of guys had to break habits," says McGwire.
"We decided on this schedule to sell Olympic baseball to American crowds," says Dedeaux. "Thus far, only the final game in Los Angeles has been sold out. If the games are an artistic and financial success, the chances of baseball becoming a medal sport will be greatly enhanced. So every baseball lover owes it to do what he can."
In the meantime, Dedeaux's boys will just try to do what they can—win.