- The Washington Times - Friday, November 7, 2003

PANAMA CITY — Here’s a stunner: The defending champion U.S. baseball team will be at home next summer while countries like the Netherlands and Italy compete for an Olympic medal in Athens.

Manager Frank Robinson and his team of mostly minor leaguers were beaten at their own game, falling to Mexico 2-1 yesterday — a loss that eliminated them from a qualifying tournament with no second chances.

The Americans had been among the favorites to win in Greece. There was even a chance future Hall of Famer Roger Clemens would have pitched.

Not now.

“I can’t believe it!” said Tommy Lasorda, who managed the 2000 U.S. team to the gold in Sydney. “It’s a shock and a disgrace that the Americans won’t be represented in the Olympics. Baseball is America’s game. It doesn’t belong to the Japanese or the Cubans or the Koreans or the Italians. This is sad, very sad.”

Lasorda’s team had Ben Sheets, Roy Oswalt and Doug Mientkiewicz in the first Olympic tournament that included professionals.

“It was a well-pitched game by their pitchers,” said Robinson, the Montreal Expos manager and a Hall of Famer player. “We were not able to do much until the ninth inning, and it was not enough.”

Said Mientkiewicz: “I know Roger Clemens wanted to play. That would have been a big draw for them. That’s a shame because they’ve got some good players on that team. It would have been nice to go out there and defend it, but now they’re not going to get that chance,” the Minnesota first baseman said. “I feel for all those guys. It’s going to be hard to watch the Olympics now, that’s for sure.”

The Mexican team was a heavy underdog in this quarterfinal game but got a tiebreaking home run in the ninth inning from Luis A. Garcia off Brian Bruney, who had 26 saves in the Arizona Diamondbacks’ minor league system this season.

The United States threatened in the bottom of the ninth when Grady Sizemore and former major leaguer Ernie Young led off with singles. With runners on second and third with one out, reliever Isidro Marquez got Justin Leone to ground back to the mound and retired Gerald Laird on a popup to end it.

Former New York Mets pitcher Rigo Beltran held the Americans to three hits in seven innings. Leone, of the Seattle system, homered in the fourth for the U.S. run.

Ray Martinez tied it in the fifth with a homer off Cleveland prospect Jason Stanford. The Americans had outscored their opponents 21-0.

The U.S. roster also included Atlanta rookie pitcher Horacio Ramirez and former big leaguers Mike Lamb and Todd Williams.

“We lost a game — I don’t think it’s a setback for U.S. baseball,” said Sandy Alderson, an executive vice president in the commissioner’s office and the top American official with the team. I think it’s a validation of the internationalization of the game. As we know, anything can happen in a game or a short series of games.”

Unlike basketball, the biggest stars in the United States do not play Olympic baseball, jeopardizing the sport’s future in the games. Even so, Alderson does not expect top major leaguers to participate four years from now when qualifying begins for the Beijing Summer Games.

“This is not about an eligibility issue. This is about a game played well by Mexico and unfortunately lost by the United States. Again, that’s the nature of the game. Things happen,” he said.

The U.S. team went 3-0 in pool play while Mexico lost all three games. But Mexico advanced when the Bahamas forfeited by failing to show up.

The Bahamas’ action prompted Milwaukee Brewers general manager Doug Melvin to say, “It makes you wonder if baseball is an Olympic sport.”

The two finalists in this tournament will reach the Olympics. Canada and Colombia will meet today for the right to play Mexico tomorrow to determine one of the spots. Cuba is the favorite for the other.

Baseball was a demonstration in the Olympics in 1984 and became a medal sport in 1996, when Cuba won the gold medal in Atlanta.

Sheets beat Cuba 4-0 to win the 2000 gold in Australia. Roy Oswalt, Sean Burroughs, Brad Wilkerson and Ryan Franklin also were on that American team.

As Mientkiewicz spoke on his cell phone after yesterday’s loss, he got a call from Mike Neill, who homered in the 2000 gold medal game.

“A lot of us used that as kind of a leaping board. It kind of put us on the map, so to speak, for baseball,” Mientkiewicz said. “That kind of shows how special our team was.”

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