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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS / The Countdown: 19 Days To The

Baseball's Amateur Hour : This Is Probably the Last All-College U.S. Team to Compete in the Olympics


MILLINGTON, Tenn. — USC outfielder Jacque Jones is sitting in the dugout at USA Baseball's training facility and reflecting on the national team's 36-6 record on the 1995 summer tour, including a four-game sweep of powerful Cuba.

"We have confidence and togetherness," Jones said. "We know that if we play [the Cubans] tough and keep them close, they're not invincible.

"We have to remember that."

Said Cal State Fullerton outfielder Mark Kotsay:

"The Cubans know we can play, that we're not just a bunch of kids. This is our second summer together, and we have a lot of continuity and experience that will work for us on and off the field. We're not going to be intimidated [by Cuba] like a lot of international teams are."

In final preparation for the Olympic Games and its Atlanta debut against Nicaragua on July 20, a U.S. team that Coach Skip Bertman of Louisiana State says has more offensive weapons than any predecessor had proceeded to enhance the confidence of last summer before receiving a dose of reality Saturday night.

The U.S., averaging 10.2 runs per game, had gone 18-0 against some of the teams it will play in Atlanta and stretched a two-year win streak to 39 games before losing to Cuba, 5-1, in Saturday night's opener of a five-game series.

The Cubans bombed the U.S. and others in winning gold at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, then shook up an aging team in the aftermath of the U.S. sweep last year. They remain the most formidable hurdle, but not the only one for the U.S. in a field that includes internationally tested Japan and South Korea.

There is pressure on the U.S. in other ways as well.

This is probably the last all-college team to represent the U.S. and must perform well on its home turf to help keep the national pastime in the Olympics. There is no guarantee baseball will be on the program at Sydney in 2000. Three things are imperative, said Richard Case, executive director of USA Baseball:

1. A strong showing by the U.S., preferably a gold, to enhance worldwide visibility and underscore this country's serious approach to what is basically its own game after being shut out on the medal stand in '92.

2. Strong ticket sales for the tournament at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium (1.4 million of the 1.6 million tickets have been sold).

3. Approval by the International Baseball Assn. for the use of professionals in future Olympics at a Sept. 21 meeting in Switzerland.

Pressure? Bertman calls it prodigious, but said his team isn't motivated to prove an all-college team, undoubtedly the last all-college team, can win the Olympics again, as the U.S. did in 1988, when Cuba boycotted. "A gold medal is motivation enough," he said.

But that alone would not save baseball in the Olympics.

The IOC keeps dreaming of a dream team tournament featuring major league players.

The groundswell is such, said Case, that the era of an all-college team seems certain to end in Atlanta.

Aldo Notari of Italy, president of the IBA, agreed.

"I expect Atlanta to be the last Olympic tournament in which only amateurs compete," he said. "It would be hypocritical to hold out.

"We want to see the best. The world wants to see players from the U.S. major leagues compete in the Olympics."

With Cuba leading the opposition, the IBA failed by three votes in June of 1994 to approve inclusion of pros. Case, who is also secretary general of the IBA, expects September approval by at least 10 votes.

Money talks. If the IOC were to eliminate baseball from the Olympics, the IBA would lose a $1.5-million subsidy.

The IBA also realizes, officials said, that the 1992 U.S. Dream Team in basketball generated an estimated $80 million in additional merchandising, TV and other revenue for the IOC and other international organizations promoting the sport.

IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch has led the movement to get pro baseball players in the Olympics and has warned the IBA that baseball will be dropped if it doesn't happen.

"Make no mistake," Case said. "Samaranch wants a dream team tournament like basketball and hockey because he's looking at the TV dollars."

Anita DeFrantz, a Los Angeles-based member of the IOC, disagreed with that interpretation, saying Olympic television commitments have already been signed through 2008.

"It has more to do with the IOC's change in philosophy," she said. "We want the best athletes in the world. If we don't have the best, why have it on the program? If other sports are open to pros, why not baseball?

"I mean, the notion of amateurism was created in this country and has largely worked because of the NCAA, but it's long been outdated in the rest of the world."

DeFrantz said she has tried to explain to her IOC colleagues that major league baseball is a summer sport that would be difficult and expensive to interrupt, but once the NHL agreed to shut down for two weeks to allow participation in the 1998 Winter Games, she was "essentially left without an argument."

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