With relative ease, USA Baseball's team cleared its first hurdle in getting back to the Olympics at last week's regional qualifier in Phoenix; returning the sport to the Games beyond 2008 will be a much stiffer challenge. The U.S., which was ousted by Mexico in qualifying for the '04 Olympics, swept five games in Phoenix from its often comically overmatched opponents, beating Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama and Canada by a combined score of 49--13 to advance to next summer's second qualifying round in Havana, where 12 countries will compete for two spots in Beijing in 2008. (Gracious in victory, the closest the Americans came to commenting on the uneven competition was catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia's observation that "Guatemala's pitching wasn't really there," after the U.S. had prevailed 23--0.)
As it stands now, though, the Beijing Games will be the last to include baseball; in July the International Olympic Committee voted 54--50 to withdraw the sport (along with softball) from future Games. In an increasingly crowded Olympic lineup, baseball, perceived as soft on drug testing in the U.S. and limited in its global appeal (especially without major leaguers), was considered expendable. "There were multiple factors," says Mike Gaski, USA Baseball's president. "One was clarity about the drug issue, to be very frank. There was some campaigning for some other sports--rugby, golf--but something had to come out, and so baseball got a few no votes in the hopes that those sports would be offered an opportunity."
But USA Baseball officials believe that a renewed lobbying campaign, as well as the more stringent steroid and amphetamine policy for both the major and minor leagues that was announced last week, could help reverse that decision. "We're very hopeful," Gaski says. "Baseball will now have the toughest, or potentially the toughest, testing program of the major professional sports. It absolutely changes the equation."
At an International Baseball Federation summit in Lausanne, Switzerland, last month, the member nations agreed to present a motion at the IOC general assembly before the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, Italy, to reconsider baseball's status for 2012. Cuba's IOC member, Reynaldo Gonzalez Lopez, has already filed that motion with the IOC's executive committee. Since no new events were approved for 2012, baseball needs only three voters to switch to achieve reinstatement.
USA Baseball is also working to build a core group of players with international experience for the games in Havana. "You look at Canada"--which also qualified for Havana, along with Nicaragua and Panama--"and they're successful year in and year out because it's a team," says Paul Seiler, executive director of USA Baseball. "They have the same guys that keep coming back. They have familiarity, experience." That's difficult for the U.S. because its top players often jump quickly to 25-man big league rosters, making them ineligible according to guidelines established by MLB, the players' association and the International Baseball Federation. But in choosing the squad for last week's games in Phoenix, USA Baseball picked a number of prospects at lower levels, such as Brandon Wood and Lastings Milledge.
Though he slumped in the regional qualifier, going 5 for 20 with one home run, Wood, an Angels first-rounder in '03, blossomed at high Class A Rancho Cucamonga this year, hitting 43 home runs, then adding 14 more in the Arizona Fall League to finish tops among professional players this season. "Something clicked this year, my swing fell into place," says the 20-year-old shortstop. "I'm trying to put the ball in play more." Milledge, 20, homered once in five games, against Nicaragua. The leftfielder's availability for Havana may be a problem though; he's already being talked about as a call-up with the Mets sometime next year.
Still, the Americans clearly established themselves last week as the class of their region. But it's just as clear that the battle for the viability of Olympic baseball will occur as much off the field as on it.
These minor leaguers stood out for Team USA during last week's Olympic qualifying round in Phoenix.
|Howie Kendrick||2B||Brandon Wood's Class A double-play partner in Angels' system hit .400 with three steals and team-high seven RBIs.|
|Jarrod Saltalamacchia||C||Braves prospect went 7 for 8 and drove in winning run in ninth against Mexico, the U.S.'s only tight game.|
|Ryan Shealy||1B||Spent 36 games with Rockies in '05, and it showed: He was 10 for 20, with five RBIs in five qualifying games.|
|Nick Ungs||RHP||Marlins prospect capped solid Double A season (7--5, 3.68 ERA) with two strong relief outings in Phoenix.|
|Jered Weaver||RHP||Angels wunderkind (above), who maintained lofty strikeout rate after jump to Double A, fanned first six in Mexico game.|