Bob Watson, co-chairman of the U.S. Olympic baseball selection committee, offers a caveat when discussing the team that manager Tommy Lasorda will take to Sydney. "We would have liked to get Ken Griffey and Mark McGwire, but we knew that wasn't going to happen," says Watson, who last week announced the 29 members of America's team. (The 24 players on the active roster will be determined just before the Games.) "Still, we're very happy with who we have. These guys are all legitimate players."
In the first Olympic competition to allow pros, the U.S., which has won just one bronze since baseball became a medal sport in 1992, will be at a disadvantage. Countries such as Cuba (which won the gold in '92 and '96), Japan (which will send eight players from its major leagues) and Korea (which plans to shut down its major league for three weeks so a collection of all-stars can go) will send many of their best players. Lasorda's squad includes only four players ( Pat Borders, Marcus Jensen, Doug Mientkiewicz and Ernie Young) with 100 or more games of big league experience.
The 18-member selection committee began scouting early this season, and shortly before the All-Star break submitted to major league teams a list of the players in whom it was interested. That list was whittled down as players got hurt or traded or as teams decided to hold players back for September call-ups. For example, Mariners minor league southpaw Ryan Anderson seemed a lock for the Games until he went on the DL with shoulder tendinitis in late July. Cubs outfield prospect Corey Patterson was held back at the last minute when Chicago chose to give him some big league at bats in September.
What the committee ended up with is a squad heavy on power—at the plate and on the mound. Five of the 13 pitchers named to the team were first-round draft picks. The likely ace is Brewers prospect Ben Sheets, 22, who through Sunday was a combined 8-8 with a 2.47 ERA in 25 starts and one relief appearance for Double A Hunstville and Triple A Indianapolis. Sheets, who throws a hard curve and a fastball in the mid-90s, is typical of the staff. Says Reds scouting director Gary Hughes, a member of the selection committee, "We looked for young power pitchers who had success this year." C.C. Sabathia, a lefthander in the Indians organization who was 6-9 with a 3.63 ERA and 155 strikeouts in 141? innings in two stops in the minors, Kurt Ainsworth (Giants, righthander, 9-9, 3.46) and Jon Rauch ( White Sox, righthander, 15-4, 2.81 and 173 strikeouts in 157 innings) all fit the profile. It falls to 37-year-old catcher Borders, the 1992 World Series MVP with the Blue Jays and the most experienced major leaguer on the team, to guide the young staff.
Mindful that the U.S. averaged only 4.6 runs a game on its way to a silver medal at the 1999 Pan Am Games, the committee looked for seasoned hitters with power, which explains the presence of such career minor leaguers as third baseman Mike Coolbaugh (age 28) and outfielders John Cotton (29), Anthony Sanders (26) and Ernie Young (31). All have hit at least 25 home runs in a pro season.
They all played this season as well, something such retired major leaguers as Tim Raines and Pat Kelly didn't have going for them in their failed bids to make the team. "We thanked those older guys for cranking it up again," says Watson, "but there's a reason they retired."