The Washington Times - August 8, 2008, 12:15AM

By TOM STAD
August 8, 2008

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You don’t have to retain amateur status to compete in the Olympics these days, and I honestly think it’s a shame. Those who are old enough to remember need only to think back to 1980. The Cold War was raging, Reagan was dueling with Gorbachev, and the country was feeling down in general. Along came a group of college kids who threw their skates over their shoulders and met up in Lake Placid to play for nothing more than their fellow Americans and personal pride. That was all the motivation they would need as they shocked the world, and boosted a nation’s spirits in the process, by upsetting the dreaded Soviets en route to the gold medal. It’s one of those moments where you remember exactly where you were and what you were doing at the time you heard the news.

Times have changed, however, and the professional athlete is allowed to compete in the Olympics now. However, baseball is a bit unique. Because Major League Baseball refuses to stop their season every four years to allow its players to compete, there has been a lack of support for the sport. It has led to the game’s demise as a medal sport, as baseball has become the first sport to be voted out of the Olympics since 1936. 2008 will be the last year for Olympic baseball, at least for a while.

Baseball front office types are trying to come up with a solution, and they can think of no better way to prove the sport belongs in the Games than to have a tremendously exciting and competitive tournament. They’re hoping that the mix of pros and amateurs in the tournament can show the International Olympic Committee what they’re going to be missing. The U.S. squad has some extra motivation to shine. The U.S. team was shut out of the Games in 2004 as the result of a loss to Mexico in a single-elimination qualifying tournament. That team was made up of strictly collegiate players; this year’s team has just one college player on its roster, while the rest are recent graduates and minor league professional ballplayers. Some already have some major league service time under their belt.

Team USA will be led by power-hitting outfielder Matt LaPorta, who was recently traded from the Milwaukee Brewers to the Cleveland Indians as the central piece in the CC Sabathia deal. The seventh overall pick in the 2007 draft out of the University of Florida, LaPorta was also a member of the 2005 collegiate USA Baseball National Team. He was playing for the double-A Akron Aeros before reporting to Team USA.

The lone college player on the roster, San Diego State right-hander Stephen Strasburg, will also be a major factor in whether the U.S. can reclaim gold. Strasburg had a 23-strikeout performance in exhibition play and is a key member of the Team USA staff.  In addition to Strasburg, the roster is comprised of 14 players who were playing in AAA, seven who were in AA and one single-A player. 

Head Coach Davey Johnson’s squad will attempt to get the gold back from Cuba, which has won it three times since baseball was granted medal status and took the bronze in 2000 when the U.S. captured the gold. The player to watch for Cuba is third baseman Yulieski Gourriel, widely regarded as the island nation’s best player. Gourriel, who can play just about every position in the infield, played second for Cuba at the World Baseball Classic. He hit .273 in the tournament with a .342 on-base percentage and a .515 slugging percentage.

The defending World Baseball Classic champion, Japan, figures to be in the mix to win it as well. Plenty of scouts will be eyeing this team’s every move in search of the next Ichiro Suzuki or Daisuke Matsuzaka, as many of the best young prospects Japan has to offer will be representing their country in neighboring China.

In order to find an underdog that could make some noise, we only need to look north. Canada, despite the fact that it was the last team to qualify for the Games, has some talent. Their roster is littered with former major leaguers and current minor leaguers, including the most recent No. 1 pick of the Brewers, infielder Brett Lawrie. Lawrie, selected 16th overall in this past June’s draft, has drawn comparisons to longtime Houston Astros great and future Hall of Famer Craig Biggio.

Just like in basketball, some rules in international baseball competition are different from those used in the major leagues. Rather than trying to explain them all, I’ve provided a link detailing all the major differences:

http://www.nbcolympics.com/baseball/insidethissport/rules/newsid=101604.html#rules

However, I think this deserves a mention. Check out the new extra innings rule:

“Each team’s at-bat in the 11th inning and beyond will begin with runners on first and second bases. Teams may start the 11th at any point in their batting order under format changes announced Friday by the International Baseball Federation and adopted in time for next month’s Beijing Games.”

For example, a team that opts to lead off with its No. 3 hitter would begin with its No. 1 batter on second base and its No. 2 hitter on first with no outs.

I guess they don’t want these games going too long. This rule will definitely benefit the members of the U.S. pitching staff, who will still have some pro games to play this summer after the tournament ends.

Here’s the schedule for the Games:

http://www.nbcolympics.com/baseball/insidethissport/special/newsid=132456.html#olympic+baseball+schedule

The tournament - which starts Wednesday with Chinese Taipei taking on the Netherlands - features an eight-team, round robin format. The top four finishers will move on to the semifinals, with a chance to get into the gold medal game. Here’s a link to a detailed explanation:

http://www.nbcolympics.com/baseball/insidethissport/format/newsid=101603.html#competition+format

Aside from the U.S., Japan, Canada and Cuba, the other teams competing are China, Chinese-Taipei, South Korea and the Netherlands. As the host country, China did not have to go through the qualification process like the seven other countries.

Let’s go USA!!!!

Tom Stad’s Amateur Hour runs every Friday here on National Pastime.

Be sure to check out our previous Amateur Hour columns: To sign or not to sign?, Summer on Cape Cod, USA Baseball, etc., Team USA; Cape stars, Stars shine on Cape.