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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS | BASEBALL

Cal State Fullerton's Kotsay Steps to International Stage

Southland Focus / A Look at Area Athletes Making their Mark at the Summer Games

July 29, 1996|ROBYN NORWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATLANTA — That ain't Rosenblatt.

Mark Kotsay looked into the stands at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium on Sunday afternoon and saw 51,223 fans, most of them screaming for him to rally the United States past Cuba.

He wasn't in Omaha anymore.

Kotsay led Cal State Fullerton to the College World Series title in Omaha's Rosenblatt Stadium two years ago.

He and a team of college all-stars that includes USC's Jacque Jones and UCLA's Troy Glaus were trying to upset Cuba to win gold medals.

Their preliminary-round matchup against Cuba drew more than twice the number of fans who jam Rosenblatt each summer.

"Rosenblatt's maybe 25,000," said Kotsay, the starting left fielder for the United States. "This is so much bigger. This tournament is so much bigger. It's international baseball, a chance to win a gold medal for your country."

With the track and field competition just across the way at brand-new Olympic Stadium, the U.S.-Cuba game drew the fifth-largest baseball crowd in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium history.

"It's a great atmosphere, playing in front of all these American fans," Kotsay said.

Earlier in the tournament, Kotsay gave the fans plenty to cheer for with two home runs and four runs batted in during a 15-3 victory over Italy.

His last chance to help beat the Cubans came when he stepped to the plate to lead off the ninth inning with the U.S. trailing by three runs. This time, he fell behind in the count, worked back to 3-2, then struck out swinging.

This time, the Americans' 10-8 loss didn't matter. If these teams meet again though, it will be for the gold medal.

"We wanted to win. We approach every game that way," Kotsay said. "But it was important to us as a team to know we can compete. We battled them. We made a game out of it. We had the winning run at the plate."

Kotsay was only one for four Sunday, but after six games in the Olympics, he's batting .391 with three home runs and five runs batted in.

Along with Jones, who is batting .360 with four homers and 11 RBIs, and Louisiana State's Warren Morris, who is batting .467 with five homers and 10 RBIs, he is leading an offense that has scored 64 runs in six games.

But Cuba has scored 89.

The most valuable player of the 1995 College World Series, Kotsay didn't match his sophomore season in his final year in college. Still, he left Cal State Fullerton with a record .404 career batting average and is second in home runs with 45. Twice, he was the Big West Conference player of the year.

The year the Titans won the national championship, he won the Golden Spikes award as the nation's top amateur baseball player, finishing ahead of the No. 1 pick in the amateur draft, the Angels' Darin Erstad.

The Olympics are Kotsay's first taste of what the major leagues must be like, but during the U.S. team's pre-Olympic tour, he saw a lot of the places he might be seeing later.

Drafted ninth overall by the Florida Marlins in June, Kotsay figures to sign a contract with the Marlins for a bonus of more than $1 million not long after the Olympics' closing ceremonies Sunday.

The U.S. team's summer tour took him to what should be his Class-A and spring training home in Viera, Fla. It took him to the Marlins' triple-A stadium in Charlotte, N.C. And it took him to Miami, the place he hopes he'll reach quickly.

That won't necessarily make him ineligible to compete in the Olympics again some day, since professionals will probably be in the next Olympics--professionals who would dominate the Cuban machine. But Kotsay would like to end the Cubans' reign before he signs his first contract.

"It's a special feeling to think you might be the last amateurs wearing this uniform, representing your country," he said.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Profile

* ATHLETE: Mark Kotsay.

* AGE: 20.

* DISCIPLINE: Baseball.

* HOMETOWN: Santa Fe Springs (Cal State Fullerton).

* COMPETITIVE HISTORY: Won USA Baseball's Golden Spikes award in 1995 as the nation's top amateur baseball player. College World Series most valuable player, 1995. Set Cal State Fullerton record with a .404 career batting average and is second in home runs with 45. Big West Conference player of the year, 1995 and '96.

* RECORD: Drafted ninth overall by the Florida Marlins in June.

* PERSONAL: Visited several cities that might be his future home during U.S. baseball tour stops in Viera, Fla., Charlotte, N.C., and Miami. All are sites of teams in the Florida Marlin farm system.

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