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U.S. pros to alter Olympic baseball

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Through all his years in baseball, nothing had prepared Sandy Alderson for the game he saw last summer. Coaches paced in the dugout, growing more anxious by the minute. Players felt so much pressure that some became physically ill. By the late innings, Alderson couldn't bear to watch another minute and left the stands.

No playoff nail-biter could match the ecstasy Alderson felt when the United States won that game, beating Mexico 2-1 in 10 innings in the semifinals of the Pan Am Games. From that moment, the longtime baseball executive knew his sport had entered a new era of global competition.

The Pan Am Games marked the debut of U.S. minor leaguers in international play, under a new rule allowing professionals to compete in such tournaments. This summer, those players will ascend to the world stage at the Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia.

The United States will send a team of 30 Class AAA and AA prospects, plucked from the 40-man rosters of major league baseball teams, to the eight-team Olympic tournament. Japan and Korea will assemble all-star teams from their pro leagues, and Cuba will send its top players. The U.S. team will be chosen in late August by an 18-member selection committee that has been scouting players throughout the season.

Though the U.S. team could include some retired major leaguers — notably Terry Steinbach, the former Minnesota Twins catcher now playing amateur ball in New Ulm, Minn. — one committee member said those players aren't likely to make the cut because of their layoff from competition.

The best minor leaguers probably won't go, either; the Olympic tournament runs from Sept. 17-27, and major league teams will keep their top prospects stateside for late-season roster moves.

This week, a pool of nearly 600 players will be whittled to about 60. Bob Watson, co-chairman of the selection committee, and Alderson, major league baseball's Olympic liaison, expect the U.S. team to contend for the gold medal — and they expect the sport to get the kind of exposure and prestige that only the Olympics can lend.

"By adding professional players, it raises the level of interest in baseball and changes the nature of the competition," said Alderson, executive vice president of baseball operations for Major League Baseball. "It also focuses more attention on the game. There was some resistance from (major league) clubs at first, but at the Pan Ams, they saw this can be a development tool and a great experience for players. There are many, many benefits from being involved with the Olympics."

After the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, the International Baseball Federation — the sport's governing body — asked its members to decide whether to allow pro players in future international competitions. The measure received unanimous approval, and the IBF began working with Major League Baseball and its players' union to iron out details.

MLB officials, always looking for ways to market their game in other countries, loved the idea. But Alderson said some clubs were initially reluctant to loan players to USA Baseball. The first big test came in the Pan Am Games, when the U.S. team had to finish first or second to earn an Olympic berth. A second-place finish to Cuba — and the players' rave reviews of the top-flight competition and big-game environment — sold many team executives on the value of international competition.

"I think the Olympics are being taken very seriously," said Twins general manager Terry Ryan, who is involved with the Olympic effort as a member of USA Baseball's steering committee. "We had Matt LeCroy and J.C. Romero on the (Pan Am) team, and they really benefited from the experience. And it speaks well for your organization to have a player participate."

The increased support from major league teams — and a larger pool of talent — should make the Olympic team stronger than the Pan Am squad. Last year, USA Baseball could choose only players not on 40-man rosters. This time, all players who are not in the major leagues in late August are eligible for selection, widening the pool by about 250 players.

But while most teams support the Olympics in theory, some might balk when they are asked to loan players. Watson said that once the Olympic roster is submitted, it cannot be changed; therefore, it is critical that U.S. Olympic officials get assurances that teams will not back out once they agree to loan a player. Watson plans to talk to all major league general managers during the All-Star break to find out which players are off-limits and which are available.

"There are always going to be clubs that have reservations," said J.P. Ricciardi, Oakland's director of player personnel and a member of the selection committee. "Some are going to tell us to take anyone we want. Some are going to say we can't have any. We're looking at this as a work in progress until the end, and it's going to take some schmoozing to get everyone on board."

As for retired players, Alderson and Watson have said some former major leaguers could be included. But while Alderson said major league experience would be valuable on a young team, the layoff from high-level competition would severely hamper veterans' chances. He and Watson said any retirees who want to play in the Olympics would have to prove that their competitive spirit, as well as their skills and fitness, remained sharp.

Ryan said he expects the selection committee will choose some veterans, but he stressed that decisions will hinge entirely upon talent. While players such as Steinbach, Tim Raines, Chili Davis and Gary Gaetti are said to be interested, Ricciardi said he isn't sure any retirees will make the team. Raines recently joined an independent minor league team to prepare for a possible spot on the team.

"It's a lot to ask," Ricciardi said. "Let's face it; we're trying to win a gold medal, and that's going to be difficult."

Looking ahead Alderson said it's unlikely that major league stars ever will play in the Olympics, because it's important to maintain parity in the Games. But he thinks the new-look Olympic tournament could lead to a World Cup of baseball, in which the planet's best players would compete during the offseason.

In the meantime, there's a gold medal to chase.

"We're going to put a team in Australia that all of you will be very, very proud of," U.S. manager Tommy Lasorda said. "We're not going 6,000 miles to lose."