Back to Back? The U.S. baseball team, which won gold in Sydney, must survive a qualifier to defend its title in 2004

November 03, 2003

Just to be sure no one missed the point of the gathering,
34-year-old outfielder Ernie Young brought his gold medal from
the 2000 Olympics to Team USA's first Arizona Fall League
practice in Phoenix on Oct. 7 and made sure all his young
teammates got a look at it. "Until you see one, you don't realize
what you're aiming for," says Young, who plays in the Detroit
Tigers' organization and has spent most of his 14-year pro career
in the minors.

So began Team USA's impressive 9-3 romp through the Fall League,
a warmup for the Americas-region Olympic qualifying tournament,
which begins on Thursday and runs through Nov. 11 in Panama City,
Panama. Thirteen teams from North, South and Central America will
compete in a round-robin/pool play format for two berths at next
summer's Athens Games. Getting out of the region that includes
Cuba, Panama, Puerto Rico and Canada could be the most difficult
part of defending the gold medal the U.S. won in Sydney. "It's
like trying to be one of the two best teams in soccer in Europe,"
says USA Baseball executive director Paul Seiler.

Indeed, the 2000 team that won the U.S.'s first baseball Olympic
gold barely beat Mexico in the semifinals of the Pan Am Games
Olympic qualifier in Winnipeg in 1999. Doing well in Panama, says
Team USA manager Frank Robinson, "is a big responsibility. If we
don't qualify, there's no Olympic representation from the U.S. in
baseball. But if we play the way we're capable of, then we will
qualify, no doubt in my mind."

Robinson's pitching staff is not as strong as the one in 2000,
but the squad is "a far better club offensively," says Major
League Baseball VP Bob Watson. Like the 2000 club, this year's
team is a mix of a few older journeymen, such as Young, and many
up-and-coming minor leaguers, like 20-year-old catcher Joe Mauer,
a St. Paul native whom the Minnesota Twins selected with the No.
1 pick in the June amateur draft two years ago, ahead of the
Chicago Cubs' Mark Prior. Mauer, a 6'4", 220-pound former high
school quarterback who turned down a football scholarship to
Florida State, was named Baseball America's 2003 minor leaguer of
the year. Playing for the Twins' Class A Fort Myers club and
Double A New Britain team, Mauer hit a combined .338 with five
homers and 85 RBIs. In the Fall League he enhanced his growing
reputation by batting .481 with eight RBIs and a .593 slugging

As potent as Mauer was in Arizona, Team USA's best hitter was
28-year-old lefty first baseman Graham Koonce, who batted .654
with two home runs, 12 RBIs and a 1.115 slugging percentage. A
6'4" first baseman who was drafted by the Tigers in the 60th
round of the amateur draft in 1993, he has since bounced around
the minors and played with three big league organizations, the
latest being the Oakland A's. After years of trying to please
every hitting instructor who offered advice, Koonce finally
started to blossom after being acquired by the A's two years ago.
This season he led Triple A Sacramento to the Pacific Coast
League championship by batting .277 with a league-leading 34 home
runs and 115 RBIs. In September he was brought up by Oakland and
went 1 for 8. Even so, when he got the call from Team USA, he
says, "I was surprised because I'm a little older and, well, I've
learned not to have high expectations. But I'm extremely happy to
be doing this. We all know what's at stake. I don't expect this
to be a cakewalk."

TWO COLOR PHOTOS: SCOTT WACHTER TALENTED CAST With hitters like Koonce (above), Robinson says the U.S. should qualify.

Athens or Bust

The top two finishers in the regional qualifying tournament in
Panama will earn berths at the 2004 Games. Here are the teams
that will pose the biggest challenge to the U.S.

CANADA Tigers reliever Chris Mears, who had five saves for
Detroit in 2003, will try to lead his country to its first
Olympic baseball berth.

CUBA The tournament favorites defeated Panama 4-2 last Saturday
to win the World Cup of Baseball in Havana.

DOMINICAN REPUBLIC While the roster has not been finalized,
perhaps as many as 12 former major leaguers will bolster the most
experienced squad in the tournament.

PANAMA Former Florida Marlins righty Rafael Medina and former New
York Yankees outfielder Ruben Rivera give the team a World Series

PUERTO RICO Sandy Alomar Sr.'s squad is led by ex-major leaguers
Omar Olivares, a pitcher, and Armando Rios, an outfielder.