Could the US Baseball team be the USA's chance to shine?

Posted: Wednesday, September 20, 2000

SYDNEY - This call that could backfire, could turn out to be worse than "gee, hon, I think that Home Depot has topped out at $18.'' It could end up making the thankfully brief instant-beer fad seem a capital idea.

But I'm starting to get a good feeling about this U.S. Olympic baseball team. It's beginning to seem these guys might turn out to be more than the faces on baseball cards that never made it out of the Topps plant.

I don't know why. It's just kind of a hunch.

It's not as if they have the talent to warrant expectations or anything. Among them, they've gone through more minor-league seasons than Tommy Lasorda has sanitary hose. They've taken more bus rides than Ralph Kramden. They're all guys who weren't going to be particularly busy during the last month of the Major League season, mostly has-beens and never-will-bes.

And they could become THE American story of the 2000 Olympics.

This first week in Sydney has not been great for the U.S. Sure, we're leading the medal count, but we've been lagging in excellence.

The softball team has a couple of losses. The women's soccer team has been invisible in Sydney and hardly invincible, tying Japan in its first game. The men's basketball team is a bore and we have been getting our heads held under the water every night at the pool.

There really hasn't been a highlight yet.

There's plenty of time to change that, more than a full week left in the Games and track and field still to come. And there's a team playing at Showground Stadium that could do the changing, that could stir a little interest where there has been little back home. Because they're different.

They all want to be in the Majors. They're just not Major League wannabes.

These guys are unspoiled. And they're treating the Olympics like an opportunity not a nuisance, still talking about meeting the Dream Team and the Williams sisters at the Opening Ceremony and coming back down the tunnel after the game when they hear a little kid call them.

That's what makes what they're doing so good.

They improved to 4-0 in the Olympic tournament Wednesday night, beating Korea 4-0. But the way they've been playing has been as perfect as their record.

They won their first game in the 13 innings, the second in a blowout and last night's in the kind of whir that made September in Sydney seem a lot like October in the States. They had a pitcher getting out of jams through seven shutout innings, a shortstop who made more stops than grout and a grand slam in the bottom of the eighth with two outs and full count.

It was good baseball - as fundamental as it was fun to watch. And it has been that way since they arrived in Sydney just two weeks after be formed as a team.

"Something's just going right now and we don't want to stop it,'' said shortstop Adam Everett. "We're playing great baseball, offensively and defensively. It's going pretty good for us.''

It's going as well as they could have pictured.

They've gotten past the best pitchers Japan and Korea had. They've gotten huge hits. And Wednesday, they got something even more surprising - a loss by Cuba, which come about as frequently at the Olympics as cash refunds.

Something is starting to happen here.

"Just the total emotion of these first four games has been unbelievable,'' said Ernie Young, one of the few U.S. players with Major League experience. "I had no idea what to expect when I got here, but this has been the best experience I've ever had playing baseball.''

Nobody really knew what to expect from this team.

America hasn't won a gold medal in baseball since 1988, hasn't even done better than bronze in that time. And this team came to Sydney with the same fanfare as luggage. They were expected to be well behind the Cubans and about even with Japan and Korea. They were certainly not a lock for a medal.

And that's not right. America being underdogs in baseball is like France being underdogs in champagne. It's unnatural.

This team could change that.

"We haven't won anything yet,'' warns Lasorda.

And he's right. They still have to play Cuba, maybe twice if they meet in the medal round. And they've only really hit in one game, an 11-1 win over Russia.

They could easily be 2-2. But the games they have won already are the kind that help a team later on, that can feed a streak and the confidence that keeps one going.

Maybe they're still not favored. But they could become a lot of people's favorite U.S. team in Sydney.

Morning News sports columnist Tim Guidera can be reached at 652-0352 after Oct. 8.

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