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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS

U.S. Coach Enjoys Amateurs' Last Hour

Baseball: Bertman bemoans inevitability of major leaguers' participation after Americans defeat Nicaragua, 10-3, for bronze.

August 03, 1996|ROBYN NORWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATLANTA — The U.S. baseball team's burnished bronze medals are going to outshine any tarnished gold professionals win in the next Olympics, U.S. Coach Skip Bertman insisted Friday after the United States beat Nicaragua, 10-3, for a disappointing third-place finish.

This Olympic tournament was almost certainly the amateurs' last stand, with international baseball officials expected to vote in September to approve professional baseball players in the Games--though it might be minor leaguers in the 2000 Sydney Games because the major league season won't be over.

"I think it defiles the Olympic dream," Bertman said after his team bounced back from a devastating semifinal loss to Japan that kept the United States from meeting Cuba in a gold-medal showdown.

"It's about a rower, a pistol-shooter who's going to school or earning their own money to be here," Bertman said. "I don't think it's about taking guys from professional ball, getting them together for two weeks so they can beat all their opponents in lopsided games.

"These kids are the Dream Team. If people want the Olympic ideal, that's what these kids are, to the maximum. But I guess it's about commercialism and capitalism and what works on TV. This . . . doesn't sell shoes and doesn't sell clothes and doesn't fit the tube like synchronized swimming."

A crowd of 41,002 turned out at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium for the Americans' final appearance, with Nicaragua hoping the U.S. might falter after the letdown and allow the Central American nation to win its first Olympic medal.

But the United States jumped to a 4-0 lead in the first inning, fueled by Travis Lee's three-run homer, and pitcher Seth Greisinger settled down after a three-run first, retiring 19 of 21 batters at one stretch. A solo homer by UCLA's Troy Glaus in the seventh inning made the score 7-3 and shortstop Jason Williams' two-run homer in the eighth made the rest of the game moot.

"Last night, everybody was just disappointed," Greisinger said. "I was, absolutely, but I knew the whole team had a tough job trying to bounce back. I just tried to go ahead and sleep and then wake up and do the exact same things I would have if it was Cuba."

Cuba was the focal point of two years of preparation for the Americans, a team of mostly 20- and 21-year-olds hoping to unseat a team of veterans that has long dominated international baseball. Even the Nicaraguans and Japanese are older, more experienced players than the Americans, though the U.S. team is laden with first-round draft picks.

The U.S. team, which lost to Cuba, 10-8, in an inconsequential round-robin game, won't know what might have happened if the teams had met in the gold-medal game.

"For as long as I play this game, I'll wonder, 'What if?' " catcher A.J. Hinch said. "But you'll give yourself ulcers if you're not careful."

Unlike in basketball, the introduction of professionals in Olympic baseball might have a broader effect than some imagine.

"I don't think the effect would be just about the Dream Team the U.S. would use," said Darin Van Tassel, a Georgia Southern assistant coach who worked with the Nicaraguan team. "Many other countries would use their best, some of them from the major leagues. The Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Japan, Mexico. There would be many more strong teams.

"We'd be happy to put Dennis Martinez up against any of these lineups."

Van Tassel gets to see the American quest for domination in its so-called national pastime from two perspectives.

"It's as if we have a deep yearning, some need to prove the U.S. has the best baseball athletes in the world," he said. "Basketball has gone that route, and I think it's a silly display you see going on over there."

Bertman and Van Tassel say they are resigned to professional baseball players in the Olympics because that is what the IOC and USOC seek.

"I think they're wrong," Bertman said. "I don't think you could get more people in the stadium if you had Cecil Fielder hitting and Greg Maddux pitching. . . . But it's what fits in the TV box. It's whether they can do a 2 1/2-minute special on how Cecil Fielder can lose weight."

Bertman's dry diatribe against the introduction of professionals was interrupted only for a defense of his players and praise for their performance on the heels of such disappointment the night before.

"I'm very proud of them," he said. "People come here, and they lose by eight one-thousandths of a point on the balance beam. Or you see someone lose by a race by two-tenths of a second. We had an opportunity and were unable to perform up to our ability at that time. I don't think we have to apologize for that.

"You wouldn't be able to convince me we failed, only that we were unable to reach our first goal. Everything else worked perfectly, and I'm proud of them."

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