There were some favorable signs from the U.S. Olympic baseball team last week. True, the Americans dropped four of seven games to Cuba, the world's best amateur team. But with a mountainous starting rotation, a couple of languorous home run trotters from Tampa, a kinetic, can-do coach and a low-key, can-do star, the Olympians flashed a nice array of weapons for the Summer Games in Seoul—to which the Cubans have said they will not be going. In fact, this U.S. team may have better pitching, more speed and greater versatility than the power-packed '84 club, which featured Mark McGwire and Will Clark and was hailed by many as the best batch of nonprofessionals ever assembled in the States.
The barnstorming Olympians, who will be seeded third in Seoul, began their nine-day, five-city series with the Cubans after having forged a 19-3 record, mostly against South Korea, Taiwan and Japan, the first, second and fourth Olympic seeds, respectively. The Yanks were coming off a 10-day layoff, which somehow blurred most of their batting eyes. After winning the opener in Millington, Tenn., 13-8, the Americans hit just .212 and averaged only 2.5 runs per game in losing the next four to Cuba, whose players are generally more revered for what they do to pitching than with it. "We just couldn't pull the trigger," said U.S. hitting coach Ron Polk.
That was true until last weekend in Charlotte. N.C. On Saturday the U.S. pounded out 14 hits in a 12-2 victory. Then, in their last meeting, on Sunday, the Americans prevailed again, marching to a 5-2 win on the strength of a 10-hit barrage.
While the U.S. bats didn't come alive until late in the series, the American arms rattled los Cubanos from the beginning. The king-sized seven-man U.S. pitching staff consists of six present or future No. 1 major league draft picks. Michigan lefthander Jim Abbott, the California Angels' top pick and, at 6'3", the puniest American pitcher, threw well in the opener, then lost a 2-1 heartbreaker on Thursday in Richmond. LSU junior Ben McDonald, a 6'7" righthanded refugee from Tiger basketball, applied heat to the Cubans, then stuck them with his forkball, striking out seven in Saturday's victory. And 6'6", 235-pound righty Andy Benes flashed the 95-mile-an-hour fastball that has made him one of the biggest bonus babies ever: He has already signed for a reported $230,000 with San Diego as the No. 1 choice in the draft. Benes lost 4-3 in Game 3 and won on Sunday, and when he wasn't pitching, he was pinching himself. "I'd always read about the players I'm playing with now," Benes said. "I can't believe I'm here."
August 21, 1988
A year ago Benes had completed his junior year at Evansville with an 11-11 career record and a 5.10 ERA. Then several things happened that Benes can't really connect, though he likes to wonder about them anyway: He married his high school sweetheart, Jennifer Byers: pitched in the semipro Jayhawk League in Clarinda, Iowa; gave up quarterbacking the Evansville football team; and added at least 5 mph to his fastball. He threw eight shutouts and went 16-3 with a 1.42 ERA, then in the NCAA regionals he blanked Arizona State, the eventual runner-up to champion Stanford, 1-0. "This has been a big year," Benes says. "It'll hit its peak in November." That's when he and Jennifer are expecting their first child.
Perhaps the biggest threat to the U.S. pitchers in Seoul will be the U.S. hitters. One slow June night during their tour of Japan, the pitchers ambushed third baseman Ed Sprague at the team hotel in Morioka, beating him, some say with straight faces, to within mere feet of his life. Sprague's comrades in aluminum mounted a counterassault on the pitchers, wearing shower caps and kimonos. Since then the batsmen have given a gangland going-over to Abbott, who emerged from a shower one day to find eight guys in slicked-back hair and suits pouring out of his closets.
The Olympians go for the aggressive hit and the quick kill on the field as well. Switch-hitting second baseman Ty Griffin, the Chicago Cubs' No. 1 pick, out of Georgia Tech, has set the tone from the leadoff spot. He has hit .500 with 28 RBIs, 14 steals and 9 homers in 28 games on the tour. Griffin made a name for himself in Indianapolis a year ago when he hit a ninth-inning, two-run homer to beat Cuba 6-4. It was the first Pan Am Games defeat for the Cubans in 20 years. "After that, I went back to Georgia Tech and wanted them to throw inside," says the 6-foot, 180-pound Griffin. "I like to jerk the ball now."
Griffin has been known to milk the moment after a homer too, as has his fellow Tampa native, first baseman Tino Martinez. "The two have different styles," says team publicist Bob Bensch. "Ty likes to take an hour to get around the bases. Tino stands there and watches the ball." A Division II star at Tampa and the Seattle Mariners' top pick, Martinez also came into his own during the Pan Am Games. He leads the Olympians in homers (10) and RBIs (31) and is batting .360 from the cleanup spot. Cuba's head coach, Jorge Fuentes, praised Martinez for his ability to drive the ball from anywhere in the strike zone.
Though he speaks little Spanish, the modest Martinez did his best for a Latino TV crew from Miami. Asked about the bullpen, Martinez replied, "El relief pitching es sólido."
It surely would have been had Gregg Olson not left the team to join the Baltimore Orioles organization—he's currently with the Class AA Charlotte Orioles—leaving Joe Slusarski, a starter from the University of New Orleans and the Oakland Athletics' No. 2 pick, as the closer. One factor contributing to Olson's decision to leave the team was that he had a hard time adjusting to the relentless intensity of head coach Mark Marquess. "Move those puppies!" Marquess is forever barking, to get his troops to pick up their heels. But Marquess has been gentler with the Olympians than he has been to his teams at Stanford, where he has won back-to-back NCAA titles.
Even so, players have had to adjust to the coach's frenetic style. Take third baseman Robin Ventura, for instance. The Chicago White Sox took the Oklahoma State senior-to-be—he hit in 58 straight games as a sophomore—with their No. 1 pick. He is an intelligent and gifted hitter, though he always looks as if he has just come in from an all-night poker game. "I'm not a guy who gets dirty and screams all the time," he says. "You don't have to run every ground ball out. I play hard the way I play hard. But Marquess can motivate you. He's the energizer. When it's a day game after a night game and it's 115 degrees, he can pick you up." Ventura is batting .314 with 26 RBIs for the Olympians.
Despite the losses last week, Marquess likes what he sees in his club. "I thought going in we would have a great pitching staff," he says. "But to me that's not our real strength. It's the balance we have. We know we can win 2-1 because we have the speed to create an inning. We can play great defense, and if we need to win 13-12 we can do that too."
The U.S. team will spend four more weeks on the road before Seoul, including 17 days at the world championships in Italy, where it may get another shot at Cuba. The worlds are considered by many to be a bigger event than the Olympic tournament, because baseball is only a demonstration sport until the '92 Games. Though the U.S. team could well be burned out by the time it meets the South Koreans and Taiwanese in Seoul, it's certain the Americans will be putting their best puppies forward.