Tuesday, August 13, 2013

July 4- USA Olympic/World Baseball Classic

Happy Independence Day everyone!!! Time to drop some knowledge!

When I originally thought about doing this post I was going to focus primarily upon the United States of America’s baseball team; however, upon doing a thorough amount of research I found that “one cannot simply talk about USA Baseball” in a few paragraphs. The main reason for this is because the USA Baseball team has evolved for nearly a century. That’s right, for roughly 101 years there has been some form of a US national team in place. So I’ll do my best to keep all of this succinct and with a point, rather than just constant babbling.

If I didn’t all ready blow your mind with the 101 years part, things are going to get a bit crazy for the next page or so for you then. According to the USA Baseball Web site and Wikipedia (for the sake of argument) the US National team was formed in 1978 and has been the National Governing Body (NGB) for amateur baseball. It represents the sport in the United States as a member of the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) and internationally as a member federation of the International Baseball Federation (IBAF). This is not entirely true. A lot of it is dependent upon wordage used and when other top-tier organizations complied to recognize baseball on an international level. This includes (as stated above): the IBAF, USOC, NGB, International Olympic Committee (previously), the Pan-American Games, etc. Like I said, there is a lot to cover but I’ll leave most of you to your own research as to not bore you with bureaucracy. Anyway, my whole point of the “not entirely true” dates back to 1912, the first time baseball was displayed as a demonstration sport at the Olympic Games in Stockholm, Sweden.

For those of you who don’t know, the definition of a “demonstration sport” is a game or event which is displayed for promotional purposes as an attempt to encourage interest in other countries. Baseball made its first appearance in the Olympics in 1912 in Sweden as an exhibition sport. A game was played between the US, the nation where the game was developed, and the host nation. The game was held on Monday, 15 July 1912 and started at 10 a.m. on the Ostermalm Athletic Grounds in Stockholm.

The Americans were represented by various members of the American Olympic track & field athletics delegation, while the Swedish team was the VesterĂ¥s Baseball Club, which had been formed in 1910 as the first baseball club in Sweden. Four of the Americans played for Sweden, as the Swedish pitchers and catchers were inexperienced. One Swede eventually relieved Adams and Nelson, the American pitchers. Six innings were played, with the Americans not batting in the sixth and allowing the Swedes to have six outs in their half of the inning. The game was umpired by George Wright, a retired American National League baseball player who also happened to be the brother of Harry Wright, the guy who pretty much invented professional sports in the US. One could argue that his Cincinnati Red Stockings of 1871 were the first professional athletes in the world, but that would be an untrue statement. Some dude named Gaius Appuleius Diocles in Rome in 146 A.D. can disprove that.

In 1936 baseball was once again displayed as a demonstration sport, but only two teams actually took the field; the US Olympic team and the World Champion team. Both teams were comprised of all members from the US. But even at that, the US kicked ass in front of Adolf Hitler. The person who pushed for baseball in Olympics was a pro ballplayer named Leslie Mann; no, not the actress whose married to Judd Apatow. Rather, the guy who played for the Boston Braves, Chicago Cubs, St. Louis Cardinals, Chicago Whales (Federal league), Cincinnati Reds and New York Giants for 16 seasons. Originally Mann had organized a 20-game exhibition in Japan the year before the Olympics. In fact, a team from Japan was supposed to play in the Olympics in Germany, but backed out last minute. Mann later went on to found the International Baseball Federation which played its first international championship in 1938 in England. The English team, composed mainly of Canadian college players, won 4 out of 5 games against an amateur American team. He also organized subsequent championships in Cuba in 1939 and Puerto Rico in 1941. World War II brought Mann's efforts to an end.

Baseball was played at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Finland, but not the kind you’re thinking of.

Traditional baseball wouldn’t rear its head in Olympic competition again until 1956 when the games were held in Melbourne, Australia. What’s interesting about these games is that baseball was considered THE “foreign” demonstration sport of the games; however, baseball had been played throughout the country since 1889 and the Australian team was the first to actually field a legitimate team against the US… with the exception that their top cricket players were not allowed to play due to the fact that they were professionals. At the time, according to IOC rules professionals were not allowed to participate in said competitions. Due to the field being set up between the running tracks, right field was only 225 feet so special ground rules were put in place, stating that a ball hit over the running track on the full will be declared a home run, where one that bounces or rolls on or over the track, shall be declared a ground rule double. This rule was put in place to stop baseball cleats damaging the track for the events after the baseball. The game was played on December 1st (remember, Australian seasons are the opposite of ours) from 12:30pm. As the visiting team, the Americans batted first, scoring 2 runs off 3 hits. Australia did not strike back until the bottom of the 2nd inning, when Chalky White of South Australia hit a solo home run off Vane Sutton. Sutton made up for his error in the top half on the 3rd, with a grand slam to send the score out to a commanding 6-1. The Americans again put the pressure on Australia in the fifth inning as two errors led to another 2 runs to the US, putting them in a comfortable position. The game was eventually called at 2:40pm, after six completed innings and a final score 11-5, with the US batting first. Very few fans were present at the start of the game, but according to record 114,000 had arrived by the sixth inning. This was due to the finals for the 1500 meters, 4x400 meters relay and finish of the men's marathon.

The Olympics were held in Tokyo, Japan in 1964 and once again only one game would be played between the Japanese and the US national team led by former USC head coach Rod Dedeaux, the greatest college baseball coach in history. Members of the team included pitchers Alan Closter, Dick Joyce, and Chuck Dobson; catchers Jim Hibbs and Ken Suarez; outfielder Shaun Fitzmaurice; first baseman Mike Epstein; and second baseman Gary Sutherland. Fitzmaurice hit a home run on the first pitch of the game and the US won 6-2 in front of 50,000 fans.

Baseball at the 1984 Summer Olympics was a demonstration sport, and the first Olympics in which the USA Baseball Team played as an internationally recognized program since the US boycotted the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, Soviet Union. Although single exhibition games had been played in conjunction with five previous Olympics, it was the first time that the sport was officially included in the program, and also the first time that the sport was played in Olympics held in the United States. Eight teams competed in Los Angeles, California in the tournament. Games were held at Dodger Stadium. Cuba, after winning the gold medal at the 1983 Pan American Games, was to participate, but did not as a result of the Soviet-led boycott (Payback). The US made it all the way to the final game where they lost to the Japanese team by the score of 6-3. Notable names from the ’84 team include Mark McGwire, Will Clark, Cory Snyder, Barry Larkin, Bobby Whitt, B.J. Surhoff and Bill Swift. The Dominican Republicteam that year featured a relatively unknown fastballer named Ramon Martinez. Due to the fact that baseball was a demonstration sport, no actual medal was awarded to the winners.

In 1988 in Seoul, South Korea, the final year as a demonstration sport, the US took home the gold (literally) as the beat Japan in the final game rematch. What’s most unusual about this final game is that actual medals were given out; however, they were not recognized by the IOC. It’s all dumb. Notable players on that year’s team include Andy Benes, Jim Abbott, Charles Nagy, Mike Fiore, Tino Martinez, Robin Ventura, Ed Sprague and Mickey Morandini.

Finally, in 1992 baseball made its debut as an official sport at the Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, which is oddly enough one of the only Olympic cities to actually turn a profit off of the games. The US finished a respectable fourth, having bean beaten by Japan and Cuba in the round robin stage and once again by Cuba in the semi-finals. If it makes you feel any better Cuba won the whole thing. But from 1992-2008 baseball served as an official Olympic event in which the US took home one bronze (1996 in Atlanta, Georgia), one silver (2008 in Beijing, China) and one gold (Sydney, Australia).

I don’t know a terrible amount about the Pan-Am Games, but what I can tell you is that the US have won five bronze medals, seven silver medals and one gold medal. I didn’t go into too much research in the Baseball World Cup either as most people don’t know much about it. However, there is the IBAF-recognized World Baseball Classic which wrapped up its third year in 2013… with the US team failing to medal in all three years.  Not to be one to end things on a downer, I saved the best for last, but first… the hat.

This particular cap was first introduced during the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. Prior to those games all headwear consisted of “USA” being stitched across the front panels like this.
Jason Giambi
Kris Benson

So whomever designed the current “US” with a red-outlined silver star logo back in 2000 certainly did a fantastic job as it has been used prevalently ever since in all international baseball games. While the cap has appeared in other bill and panel color schemes, the classic all-nave blue has lasted all 14 years of competition, with the addition of the flag of the USA added to the side in 2006 during the first World Baseball Classic tournament.
Now, despite 101 years to focus on I was able to whittle my marks down to two numbers for one year.

#28- Drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers in the first round (10th overall) of the 1999 draft, Ben Sheets made his professional debut with the Ogden Raptors of the Pioneer League. In August, against the Idaho Falls Chukars, Sheets struck out eight batters while allowing just one hit through five innings. Later in the month, he was promoted to advanced-A Stockton of the California League. In his seven minor league starts that year, Sheets averaged a strikeout ratio of 10.09 batters per nine innings.

In 2000, Sheets was on the US national team for the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney. One of the most important things to note from this year’s Olympics is that it was the first time professionals were allowed to be on the team. Granted, none of the talent had made it to the Major League level, but they were still paid players in the minor leagues and no longer technically amateurs. Sheets pitched 22 innings, struck out 11 batters, walked one, and gave up 11 hits during the tournament, and faced off against Cuban ace Pedro Luis Lazo in the gold medal game, giving up three singles and advancing just one runner to second base for the entire game. Sheets gave up no walks and struck out five in a 4–0 complete game shutout. It is still considered one of the finest pitching performances in US international competition.

After helping the US win their first and only gold medal in Olympic competition, Sheets headed back to the minors in 2001 but quickly worked through the ranks of the Brewer farm system until making his Major League debut on April 5th. In eight seasons with the Brewers, the last few which were hampered by injury, Sheets went 86-83 with a respectable 3.72 ERA and 1325 strikeouts. All four of his All-Star Game appearances were made with the Brewers in 2001, 2004, 2007 and 2008. His best statistical season came in 2004 when he went 12-14 with a 2.70 ERA and 264 strikeouts, which were good enough for an eighth place finish for the National League Cy Young award that season. At the end of the 2008 season Sheets and the Brewers went their separate ways.

Sheets wouldn’t pitch again in the Majors until 2010 when the Oakland Athletics agreed to a one year, $10 million with an additional $2 million in incentives, contract with the Oakland Athletics. Sheets got the Opening Day start, going five innings allowing three runs (two earned) on four hits while striking out 3 and walking 4, receiving a 'no-decision'. The Athletics lost the game in the bottom of the 9th. On July 29, 2010, the Athletics announced Sheets would miss the remainder of the season due to a torn flexor in his right elbow. His season ended with Sheets going 4-9 in 20 starts.

On July 1, 2012, the Atlanta Braves announced that Sheets had signed a minor league contract with the organization in order to attempt a comeback to the major leagues. He made his first minor league start with the Mississippi Braves on July 4, 2012. On July 12, the Braves announced that they had called Sheets up from the minors. Sheets made his first start in nearly two years on July 15th against the New York Mets. He pitched six scoreless innings, giving up two hits and striking out five to earn the win. After his second start also resulted in no runs given up by Sheets, who pitched six innings of five-hit, six-strikeout ball, he stated, "If you asked me if I'm surprised I haven't given up a run, yeah I am. But I'm not surprised I'm getting people out. I wouldn't have come back if I didn't think I could get people out." Sheets made the final start of his career Wednesday, October 3, 2012 against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

#16- Doug Mientkiewicz attended Westminster Christian School in Palmetto Bay, Florida, where he was a teammate of Alex Rodriguez. Upon graduation, he was drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays in the twelfth round of the 1992 Major League Baseball Draft, but chose instead to play at Florida State University. In his third season with the Seminoles, Mientkiewicz led the team with a .371 batting average, 19 home runs and 80 RBI. Florida State earned their first ACC Championship, and Mientkiewicz was named ACC Atlantic I Regional MVP. After the season, Mientkiewicz was drafted by the Minnesota Twins in the fifth round of the 1995 Major League Baseball Draft.

In 1998, he batted .323, with a .432 OBP and .508 slugging percentage in 509 at-bats for the New Britain Rock Cats to earn Eastern League (AA) All-Star honors, and a September call-up to the Twins. He batted .200 with two RBIs in 25 at-bats for the Twins. Mientkiewicz earned a roster spot with the Twins the following spring without having previously played in Triple-A, and batted .229 with two home runs and 32 RBIs sharing playing time with Ron Coomer at first base in 1999. After a full season in the majors, Mientkiewicz spent the 2000 season with the Twins' AAA affiliate, the Salt Lake Buzz. He was the Triple-A All-Star first baseman, and Pacific Coast League All-Star designated hitter. He batted .334, with a .446 OBP and .524 slugging percentage, in 485 at-bats for Salt Lake, while both scoring and driving in 96 runs.

After the season wrapped up Mientkiewicz was named to the US team and served as the starting first baseman. Mientkiewicz was counted upon for his leadership as the oldest member of the team. He is best known for his walkoff home run against the South Korean team in the semifinals which helped carry the momentum into the gold medal game against Cuba.

In 2001 Mientkiewicz became the Twins’ full-time first baseman, posting the best numbers of his career on both sides of the ball. He won his first and only Gold Glove of his career that season and finished in 14th place for the American League MVP award after going .306/15/74 under then-manager Tom Kelly. Mientkiewicz had another solid year with the Twins in 2003, but was traded to the Boston Red Sox near the trading deadline in 2004 where he joined a former Twins teammate David Ortiz as they shattered the “Curse of the Bambino” that season after the Red Sox won their first World Series title since 1918. Not wanting to make the same defensive gaff as in the case of Bill Buckner in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, Mientkiewicz was put in a first base and recorded the final out of the Series.

Since then, Mientkiewicz became a bit of a journeyman, playing a season each with the New York Mets (2005), Kansas City Royals (2006), New York Yankees (2007), Pittsburgh Pirates (2008) and Los Angeles Dodgers (2009). He currently serves as the manager for the Fort Myers Miracle, an advanced-A affiliate of the Twins in the Florida League.

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