If ever a sport needed a Dream Team to improve its battered
image, attract young fans and broaden its global appeal,
baseball would seem to be it.
Most major league players would like to see one. "Not only would
I consider giving up two weeks of the season to play in the
Olympics, I would want to," says Seattle Mariners star Ken
Griffey Jr. "We're using pro basketball and hockey players in
the Olympics--why not baseball players? It would be a way of
supporting my country, and it could bring back some of the fans
who are still down on baseball. And," he adds, laughing, "I'd
get to use an aluminum bat."
The players' association would also like to see a Dream Team.
"It would be great for the sport and great for the players,"
says MLBPA boss Donald Fehr, whose association boasts members
from 13 countries. "It has long been our belief that
international competitions at all levels--not just the
Olympics--ought to be upgraded."
The International Olympic Committee would like to see a Dream
Team too. "I would like to see, if not an American Dream Team, a
real American baseball team in 1996, not like the one in
Barcelona," president Juan Antonio Samaranch told the IOC
Congress in 1994. The addition of major league ballplayers would
translate into higher television ratings in the U.S., which
would mean increased revenue for the IOC. Without pro stars,
future U.S. Olympic teams would be just like the one Samaranch
referred to, which finished fourth in Barcelona in 1992, behind
Cuba, Taiwan and Japan--with a similar lackluster appeal to TV
audiences. In fact, another all-amateur tournament could be the
death knell for baseball's future in the Games; Samaranch has
made no secret of his disenchantment with gold medal games
featuring no-name players. Last year Aldo Notari, the head of
the International Baseball Association (IBA), which oversees the
game worldwide and determines eligibility for participation in
the Olympics, said that Samaranch had implied that baseball
would be excluded from the Games if it didn't permit
professionals to compete by the year 2000.
So why won't you see a Dream Team? Why won't you see Griffey,
Greg Maddux, Frank Thomas et al. going for the gold in Atlanta?
Or, for that matter, in Sydney four years from now? While the
NBA is poised to reap another merchandising and public relations
bonanza this summer courtesy of another Dream Team, and the NHL
prepares to interrupt its 1997-98 season so it, too, can
capitalize on its own Dream Team at the Nagano Olympics,
baseball founders in the tar pits of inaction. The best major
leaguers are no closer to playing for their respective countries
than they were in 1984, when the IOC first introduced the grand
old game as an exhibition sport.
The IBA rejected a measure in June 1994 that would have allowed
pro ballplayers into the Games. A two-thirds majority was needed
for the proposal to pass, and it fell three votes shy: 48 to 28.
"It was voted down by the Asians and the Latins," says Richard
Case, executive director of USA Baseball, the governing body for
the amateur sport in the U.S. "They don't get along with
professional baseball people. They accuse them of raiding their
Case believes the same proposal will pass the next time it's
voted on, this September. The IBA has increased its membership
to 100 countries, and many of the new members, according to
Case, are sold on the Dream Team concept. "A lot of work is
being done by Don Fehr and people in professional baseball,"
Case says. "It would save baseball in the Olympics."
But even if the IBA reverses itself and welcomes pros, the
chances of major leaguers' appearing in the Olympics before 2004
are remote. The 2000 Olympics in Sydney will take place during
September--the height of the pennant races. "They couldn't be at
a worse time," says Case. "The owners are not going to stop the
season like hockey is." In fact, baseball owners express horror
at the notion of interrupting a season for any reason besides,
oh, say, a lockout. "You can't have a true Dream Team," says
Case. "It's going to have to be a realistic formula--a few major
leaguers, maybe one from each team; minor leaguers; and some
skilled college players."
"I favor having an all-star team in the Olympics that is made up
of Triple A players," says New York Yankees owner George
Steinbrenner, who is also a vice president of the U.S. Olympic
Committee. "I don't know where the other owners stand."
But Triple A players don't sound like much of a Dream Team. The
sad thing is, if the major league owners and the powers that be
in the IBA got behind the idea, the result wouldn't be just a
Dream Team but a Dream Tournament. With the addition of major
leaguers, four or five great Olympic baseball teams would be
created, any one of which might win the gold. Puerto Rico's
lineup would read like a big league All-Star team: Roberto
Alomar, Carlos Baerga, Juan Gonzalez and Edgar Martinez. The
Dominican Republic's Dream Team would feature Julio Franco,
Pedro and Ramon Martinez, Jose Mesa, Raul Mondesi, Manny Ramirez
and Sammy Sosa; and Venezuela could call upon the talents of
Wilson Alvarez, Andres Galarraga, Ozzie Guillen and Omar
Vizquel. Japan would be able to field a Dream Team of
professional stars too, including the Dodgers' Hideo Nomo, who
started last season's All-Star Game for the National League. And
Cuba's perennially powerful national team would finally be
measured against seasoned pros.
There are, however, those who think the competition wouldn't be
so balanced. "There'd be no question which team would win the
gold medal," says St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Andy Benes, a
member of the 1988 U.S. Olympic team, which won a gold medal in
Seoul. "It would be just like basketball--a total mismatch."
Such bravado sounds conspicuously like the predictions of some
North American hockey experts, who boasted in 1972 of an
impending Canadian sweep on the eve of a series between the
Soviet national team and a Canadian all-star team. The Soviets
won three and tied one of the first five games before ultimately
losing the series 4-3-1.
"The U.S. wouldn't beat everyone by as much as the basketball
team did," says Toronto Blue Jays third baseman Ed Sprague,
another member of the 1988 U.S. Olympic team. "We'd have the
edge in pitching and that's about all."
Could the U.S. even count on its best suiting up in the red,
white and blue? "I'd love to play in the Olympics," says Boston
Red Sox pitcher Roger Clemens. "Other than winning a World
Series, I want to win a gold medal more than anything."
Clemens's passion for the Olympics is not shared by all his
peers; some express horror at the notion of interrupting a
baseball season for any reason besides, oh, say, a strike. "I'd
love to play in the Olympics, but I wouldn't want to take two
weeks off in midseason," says Tony Gwynn of the Padres. "That
messes with the integrity of the game. At the end of the season,
"I think most players would leave their teams for three weeks,
but any longer than that, no," says Boston's Mo Vaughn. "I would
definitely not go if we were in the middle of a pennant race,
because my team comes first."
A number of those who had the opportunity to play in the
Olympics while they were in college would like to see the status
quo remain. "The Olympics are a perk that college players
deserve," says the Oakland Athletics' Mark McGwire, who played
in the 1984 Games. "You don't need professionals taking over."
"It wouldn't bother me if they wanted to leave it for the
amateur guys," says the Baltimore Orioles' B.J. Surhoff, a 1984
Olympian. "Especially since with more Cubans defecting, their
amateur team won't be as great. The Dominican amateur team is
not very good. It's the same with Puerto Rico. All their best
players come over here."
As a result, U.S. collegians should be in the running for the
gold when they take the field in Atlanta. But they won't be
Dreamy, they won't be marketable, and they won't be a television
draw. Which is exactly what bothers Samaranch, under whose
leadership the Olympic movement has pretty much abandoned the
concept of amateurism in favor of the pure pursuit of athletic
greatness and the higher revenues that greatness brings. For
now, and for the foreseeable future, Olympic baseball will
remain a minor league proposition--if it remains at all.
COLOR PHOTO: DIGITAL MONTAGE BY SI IMAGING FROM PHOTOS BY PETER READ MILLER, RICH FRISHMAN, V.J. LOVERO, CHUCK SOLOMON Imagine the spectacle if Team USA had stars like (from left) Griffey, Maddux and Thomas. [Ken Griffey Jr., Greg Maddux, and Frank Thomas made to appear as members of U.S. Olympic Team standing on medal stand]