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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS | THE OTHER SPORTS

The Amateurs' Last Hour : The Next U.S. Baseball Team Trying to Unseat Cuba Is Likely to Have the Help of Professionals

July 14, 1996|ROBYN NORWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Quaint as it seems, they are amateurs.

The Team USA that will try to keep Cuba from winning the gold medal in America's pastime on American soil does not include any professionals. Many of them soon will be, true enough- eight were first-round major league draft picks in June.

But next to the Cubans, who walk onto the field with the easy confidence of grown men, the American baseball players look like talented, awkward boys.

Unlike basketball with its Dream Team, Olympic baseball is still ostensibly the province of amateurs--though the Cubans are merely state-sponsored professionals, some of them well into their 30s.

This could well be the last time the United States tries to beat the world's only remaining Big Red Machine with college kids.

"I don't think there's any doubt we'll have professionals in Sydney [in 2000]," said Team USA Coach Skip Bertman, noting that last year an International Baseball Federation vote to allow professionals in the Olympics failed by only three votes. "It can't be major leaguers because the season won't be over, but you can put minor leaguers in there. The other idea is you could use the major leaguers by playing in the Winter Olympics. Then you'd have everybody's Dream Team.

"It is the Olympics and with the fashion they're going, you should have your best players. We've been together almost six weeks. Cuba has been together 3 1/2 years. It doesn't work for us, using college kids.

"We've got [eight] first-round draft picks. If we were able to stay together a couple of years, we could play with Cuba. In six or seven years, we could win the American League West."

That might not be too far afield. The U.S. team includes the first four players taken in this year's draft: Clemson pitcher Kris Benson (Pittsburgh), San Diego State first baseman Travis Lee (Minnesota), Wichita State closer Braden Looper (St. Louis) and Clemson pitcher Billy Koch (Toronto).

Southern California is well represented, with Cal State Fullerton outfielder Mark Kotsay and Titan catcher Brian Loyd, USC outfielder Jacque Jones, UCLA third baseman Troy Glaus and Bruin pitcher Jim Parque.

Cuba is not quite as dominant as in the past. The defection of Rolando Arrojo, the team's top pitcher, the week before the opening ceremonies was a substantial blow. (Since Rene Arocha defected to play for the Cardinals in 1991, more than a dozen quality players have followed.)

The Americans finished a disappointing fourth in the 1992 Games, but served notice last summer that defending gold-medalist Cuba shouldn't be shining the '96 golds just yet by sweeping a four-game exhibition series in Millington, Tenn.

Bertman now says that Cuba was unfit and unmotivated then, and that the Cubans were more ready to play this summer, when they took three of five from the United States, breaking the Americans' 39-game winning streak with a 5-1 victory in the opening game behind the pitching of the soon-to-defect Arrojo. The teams will meet again July 28 at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium--and once more, perhaps, in the medal round Aug. 1 and 2.

South Korea and Japan are the other medal contenders, but "the No. 1 team in the world is Cuba," Bertman said. "They're awesome."

When Cuban pitchers struck out 23 batters in the first two games of the latest exhibition series, Bertman said, "they made us look like children."

Next time, the United States probably will send men.

"I think they should keep it for amateurs," said UCLA's Glaus. "I think if the pros play, it will be like the Dream Team in basketball. It will turn into only a question of how much they're going to win by. The Cubans are a great team, but they'd get skunked against our pros."

The outlook in some additional sports:

Archery

July 28-Aug. 2

Stone Mountain Park

South Korea is the dominant nation in archery. The once-powerful United States--which still has won more medals in the sport than any other country--was shut out in 1992, and the Americans' only real hope for a medal in Atlanta is in the men's team competition.

Upsets during the selection process left the U.S. men and women without their most accomplished athletes. Neither Jay Barrs, the gold medalist in 1988, nor two-time Olympian Denise Parker will be in Atlanta. That leaves the United States with a distinctly youthful team. Justin Huish of Simi Valley, 21, and Rod White, 19, will be joined on the men's team by Butch Johnson, 40, a 1992 Olympian who finished 18th in the individual competition. On the women's team, 17-year-old Lindsay Langston is the newcomer among 1980 Olympian Judi Adams, 37, and El Monte's Janet Dykman, 42.

Badminton

July 24-Aug. 1

Georgia State University

The rising star of U.S. badminton, Kevin Han, came to New York from Shanghai in 1989, making ends meet by working as a busboy and delivering Chinese food by bicycle. But Han is seeded only 32nd at the Olympics--an indication of how far the United States lags in the sport, which is popular in Asia and parts of Europe and is considered the national sport of Indonesia.

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