Cuba clear favorites after U.S. miss out
Posted: Wednesday August 4, 2004 9:21PM; Updated: Wednesday August 4, 2004 9:21PM
DALLAS, Aug 5 (Reuters) -- The defending Olympic baseball champions, the United States, will not be in Athens to challenge for a gold medal but a rag-tag team of mostly Greek-Americans will represent the host country.
The U.S., where baseball is the national pastime, suffered a shock loss to Mexico in November and failed to qualify, leaving Cuba and Japan as the teams likely to fight for the gold.
There is no reserved spot for the defending champions in the Olympic field of eight teams, down from 12 in Sydney.
However, there was a spot set aside for the hosts Greece, a nation that had no talent pool, no national team and no baseball stadium before it was given the nod to stage the Games.
Greece does have two dilapidated diamonds located on the grounds of former U.S. military bases.
Peter Angelos, a Greek-American who owns Major League Baseball (MLB) team the Baltimore Orioles, and U.S. ambassador to Greece Thomas Miller worked to find talent for a Greek team among baseball players in North America with Greek parentage.
They were helped by bureaucrats in the Greek immigration department who have granted dual citizenship to a handful of ball players who will chat in English when they take the field for Greece.
Greece does not stand much of a chance of winning a medal, unlike the Cubans. In Cuba baseball is more than a pastime -- it is a passion. They won gold in 1992 and 1996 but had to settle for silver in Sydney.
One of the big problems for Cuba has been preventing their top talent from fleeing the island nation and heading to North America to play in the major leagues.
In June, Cuban Kendry Morales, a first baseman with long-ball power, landed in Miami and asked to defect to the United States.
In 2002, Cuban pitcher Jose Contreras defected and touched off a bidding war between the New York Yankees, who won, and the Boston Red Sox.
Japan will present one of the toughest challenges for Cuba. They will field a team of players mostly from the country's professional ranks who will also attract the attention of MLB scouts.
Seibu Lions pitcher Daisuke Matsuzuka, who strutted his powerful fastball in Sydney for Japan, will likely have a spot on the team along with Daiei Hawks star catcher Kenji Jojima.
Unfortunately for Japan, Shigeo Nagashima, who was a revered player in Japan for the Yomiuri Giants, will not be fit enough to lead the side to Athens. Nagashima was selected as the national team's manager but suffered a stroke in March.
There are two other strong teams from the Pacific Rim --
Australia and Taiwan -- who could easily land in the medals.
Baseball was a demonstration sport in the 1984 Olympics and
became a medal sport in Atlanta in 1996. The other teams battling for the baseball gold are Canada, Italy and the Netherlands.
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