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For some, world stage drama hard to top01/31/2006 10:43 AM ET
By Tom Singer / MLB.com
If there are any big leaguers who signed on for the World Baseball Classic out of a sense of obligation, any who will approach the global tournament with professional coolness, any players or fans who might consider it little more than Spring Training turbocharged, there is an attitude adjustment in order. There are plenty of their peers to do the adjusting. Major Leaguers have been there, under the waving flags and amid the passionate shouts. Emotionally, they've never been able to leave it behind, the intoxicating feeling of playing with their national colors splayed across their chests. Nomar Garciaparra: "As far as baseball is concerned, [playing in the Olympics] is the most honorable thing I've ever done." Tino Martinez: "I don't know how anything can top this." Jason Varitek: "I can't even explain how awesome it was. It was one of the most incredible things in my life." Yes, among the new ground broken in the WBC will be participation by Major Leaguers in international competition for the first time. But future Major Leaguers have already taken dramatic spins on the international stage. For more than two decades, USA Baseball has assembled squads for various global tournaments featuring the cream of the nation's amateur crop, and in 1999 even pros entered the mix -- although only Minor Leaguers were permitted. A rare exception was Doug Mientkiewicz. The Royals first baseman is one of only a couple of players to appear in an Olympics after not only having played in the big leagues, but logging enough to burn his rookie status. Mientkiewicz spent the entire 1999 season as Minnesota's everyday first baseman, but couldn't break camp with the Twins the following spring, being shipped instead to Triple-A Salt Lake City. The demotion infuriated him -- but it also made him eligible for the Olympic team assembled for the 2000 Games in Sydney. Following the USA's gold medal victory over Cuba, Mientkiewicz said, "I'm going to see T.K. [Twins manager Tom Kelly] tomorrow and shake his hand and thank him for sending me down." An ever more unlikely Olympian was Pat Borders. He was 37 years old, a 12-season veteran and out of professional baseball in 2000, when he felt the lure to catch for Team USA. Recharged after batting .429 as the gold medalists' starting catcher, Borders resumed his big-league career; he was still active last season with the Mariners. Today's Team USA has always been tomorrow's All-Star team. Scores of current big leaguers -- from Abe Alvarez to Ryan Zimmerman -- in fact got their first tastes of national exposure in the Pan-Am Games, world and international cups or, more recently, the Olympics. Similarly, foreign-born Major Leaguers have also starred in international play for their respective countries, perhaps none with more distinction than Cuban greats Orlando Hernandez and Jose Contreras. Or with more passion and sacrifice than Dave Nilsson. Nilsson negotiated a buyout of his contract with the Brewers so he could play for his native Australia in the 2000 Sydney Olympics. In 1999, Nilsson had been an AL All-Star; he never returned to the Majors. For all of them, the experience was unforgettable. Maybe it's the fleeting nature of big international events, compared to the recurring pro game. Maybe it's the palpable sense of playing for visceral stakes. But it's magic. Listen to Jacque Jones, the Cubs' new center fielder but then a USC outfielder, bubbling during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. "We're playing here because we love it, not because someone is paying us to be here," Jones said. "You'll never get Major Leaguers with the heart and the desire we have. "Do you think Barry Bonds would be enjoying this?" Jones continued, referring to the Giants' then-31-year-old outfielder. "Do you think he would be here talking to you now?" Four years earlier, Varitek, the Georgia Tech catcher, was in the Barcelona Olympics, in which baseball debuted as an official medal sport. Years later, he reminisced in the Boston Herald: "It's a valuable memory, and it's something that can never be taken away from me. There's a lot of pride, and you get this sense of where you've come from and it puts everything into perspective." Garciaparra, also in the 1992 Games, was already a multiple AL All-Star when he recalled it as "hands down, without a doubt, the biggest honor I ever had in my baseball career." Historically, the USA has fared only so-so in global competition, a mediocrity underscored by its inability to even qualify for the most recent 2004 Olympics -- despite a roster featuring future Major Leaguers Joe Mauer, Ryan Madson, Grady Sizemore and Mike Lamb on a squad managed by Frank Robinson. The undeniable two peaks on USA Baseball's chart were gold medal performances in the Olympics of 1988, when baseball was still a demonstration sport, and 2000, when it counted. The 1988 squad included such future big-league stars as Robin Ventura, Tom Goodwin, Andy Benes, Martinez and Jim Abbott, the left-hander who beat Japan, 5-3, in the gold medal game. The 2000 roster was even more stacked, with Mark Teixeira, Sean Burroughs, Adam Everett, Brad Wilkerson, Roy Oswalt, Ben Sheets and Mientkiewicz. Yet nothing could compare with the 1984 Olympic Team, the best American squad ever assembled for an international competition -- maybe the best national baseball team, of any nation, ever. Two decades' hindsight merely sharpens the impression of that squad: Will Clark, Cory Snyder, B.J. Surhoff, Don August, Barry Larkin, Bobby Witt, Scott Bankhead and Mark McGwire. Despite the talent and the ultimate home-field advantage -- Los Angeles' Dodger Stadium -- this Hope Diamond collection lost the title game to Japan, 6-3. Such unpredictability is one of the beauties of international play. There are no sure things, no second chances. That one shot at national glory energizes the try, and preserves the memory. Martinez, after hitting two homers and driving in four runs in that '88 Olympics clincher over Japan, immediately sensed he had contributed to a keepsake. "The nicest thing will be running into Jimmy [Abbott] or the other guys in Major League parks the next few years," Martinez had said. "We'll look at each other and smile and share in the moment again."
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.