THE RELUCTANT OLYMPIAN
The U.S. has often fared poorly in international amateur baseball competition against Cuba, Japan and other countries. One reason is that American high school and college stars are too quickly spirited away by pro teams. To prevent this from happening at the 1984 Olympics, where baseball is to be a demonstration sport, U.S. amateur baseball officials entered what they hailed as a breakthrough agreement with the major leagues covering players chosen for the U.S. national team preparing for the Games: If any such player was subsequently drafted by a major league club, he couldn't report to it until he was cut from the national team or until baseball ended at the Olympics on Aug. 7. Big league officials were happy about the accord, too, seeing it as a gesture of good will toward the amateurs.
One person the cozy arrangement didn't make happy was Billy Swift, a University of Maine senior who was taken by the Seattle Mariners last week as the second pick overall in baseball's amateur draft. A righthanded pitcher who has represented the U.S. in international competition the past two years, including the 1983 Pan American Games, the 22-year-old Swift was notably unexcited when U.S. Baseball Federation selectors included him on the 30-man team preparing for the Olympics. For one thing, because it's only a demonstration sport in L.A., no official medals will be awarded in baseball. Also, Swift doesn't relish the grueling schedule that will have the U.S. team playing 40 games in 33 cities before the Olympics. But most of all, Swift doesn't want to wait two months to join the Mariner organization.
"I'd like to get started with my pro career," he says. "I've got to start thinking about the future. I saw my name on that Olympic list, and I didn't go to tryouts or anything. I think that's pretty strange. I think it should be my choice."
Although they're obviously eager to get such a highly regarded prospect in the uniform of one of their minor league teams, the Mariners' hands are tied. Under the agreement with the amateurs, a big league club can sign a national team member to a contract, but the player can't report to the club and bonuses must be deferred; the major leagues took out an insurance policy to guarantee that if a player is injured in the Olympics, he would still get his bonus and the club would be reimbursed. "We support the Olympic team," said Jeff Scott, the Mariners' director of player development. "Until we're told that Swift's cut from the Olympics or that they're over, that's it." U.S. Olympic coach Rod Dedeaux was equally unyielding, saying, "Once a kid is on the Olympic team, he's untouchable."
The 30 national team members were to begin working out this week in Louisville and then face cuts that will reduce their number to 25 on June 18 and, finally, to 20 Olympians on July 15. Swift said he intended to report to Louisville and wouldn't deliberately play poorly. "I know I could go out and hit the first nine batters I face, and I'd get cut, but I wouldn't do that," he says. "I'll try my best. It's just that I'd rather be somewhere else."
It would be a nice resolution of the situation if, once the U.S. team gets into full swing, Swift changes his mind and decides he actually wants to be an Olympian. But it would have been better still if he'd been dropped from the team as he initially desired. At a time when a lot of outstanding athletes are being wrongly prevented from competing in the Olympics, it seems equally muleheaded to force one to do so.
STRICTLY A DEFENSIVE MOVE
A lot of athletes cross themselves at critical moments during competition, and Fresno State University shortstop Joe Xavier is one of them. At a recent sports luncheon, Xavier was asked by a nonbeliever whether he actually thought that making the sign of the cross before he stepped to the plate helped him hit.
Xavier shrugged and said, "No sir, but I think it helps me from getting hit."