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June 20, 2000

The Daily Prospectus

Professional Players in the Olympics

by Derek Zumsteg

The decision to allow professional baseball players to compete in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia brought with it a real chance that we, the greatest nation on earth, would be able to put on a basketball-style thrashing exhibition of what capitalism does for competition and athletic development. Purity of competition hasn't been part of the Olympics in ages, with "amateur" athletes living increasingly professional lives and making deferred incomes, so there's no real loss. What we get in return is a chance to laugh at smaller nations as we crush them in sports we devote an obscene amount of resources to support. But I'm worried, because there are some signs that we, as a nation, are going to waste this opportunity to demonstrate the amazing power of anti-trust exemptions.

The United States Olympic baseball team will be coached by Tommy Lasorda, which was the first bad sign. Lasorda is now naming coaches like Phil Regan. Regan was responsible, along with manager Jim Riggleman, for not only Kerry Wood's overwork but also for the abuse of Jeremi Gonzalez in 1998. Reggie Smith was also named a coach, being rewarded for his well-regarded work as a batting and first-base coach at the 1999 Pan Am Games. Eddie Rodriguez, who manages the low-A Blue Jays' affiliate and has valuable third-base coaching experience, rounds out the staff.

This is already dangerous. Tommy Lasorda, known for his dugout swearing jags--surprisingly loud, long and offensive for a man his age--napping and burning out starters like Microsoft Quality Assurance contract temps, teamed up with a pitching coach who let Kerry Wood throw more than 115 pitches 13 times, including the terrible 132-pitch outing one start before Wood's season ended.

If you were the GM of a progressive major-league organization, say, the Braves or A's, good at watching pitch counts and ensuring the health of your pitching prospects through careful conditioning, monitoring and coaching, what would you say if Tommy Lasorda called your organization and asked if he could borrow Barry Zito to give the kid some big-game experience? "Uh, sorry, Tommy, but we're going to need him as a backup pitch charter. Thanks for asking."

It is almost certain that good organizations will protect their pitching prospects from career-threatening abuse for the sake of one last run at glory for the Pastaman, and that means the U.S. will not field the best team possible. Who does that leave? Brandon Duckworth of the Phillies? Josh Kalinowski of the Rockies? It pains me to think of these poor guys getting put into the noodle-maker.

Political pressure to represent both the minor leagues and colleges may exacerbate the situation further. If Lasorda and Co. can't get the kind of pitching talent they want from the professional ranks, they'll likely look at college pitchers, many of whom are already being asked to throw 140 pitches while humming the school fight song. If this happens, we may well get to see young, promising pitchers tear ligaments and rotator cuffs in the red, white and blue uniforms of our country. Other unfortunate players may not suffer that kind of catastrophic damage, but instead ensure the Livan Hernandez slow-decline-through-abuse. In that scenario, they just don't ever seem to have the same speed and control, they wash out in the minors and wonder what went wrong.

What's worse is that the braintrust is entertaining a terrifying possibility: giving roster spots to retired major leaguers, namely Wade Boggs and Terry Steinbach. It's just speculation at this early stage, but it's speculation that has gone unchecked by the United States Baseball authorities, and particularly by mouthpiece Lasorda. Are they trying to generate excitement by letting rumors run wild? Possibly. But it's equally possible Lasorda is on a conference call with his bosses right now, trying to get Ryne Sandberg on the short list for second base.

Wade Boggs at 42 wasn't embarrassing, hitting a translated .298/.372/.374 in limited playing time for Tampa Bay, a performance that was a little below the positional average. But it was a spike in his offensive decline, and his defense was starting to raise eyebrows. How would he be at 43, a year out of the game? Would he better than Oakland third-base prospect Adam Piatt, whose translation at age 23 was .291/.371/.548? And while I think Terry Steinbach is a great guy, and at 38 was still worth playing, baseball has some great catching prospects in the minors, like Boston's Steve Lomansey and Colorado's Ben Petrick.

I sincerely hope that I'll get to see our country finally show those Cubans what's what, giving them back that kid while retaining the gold medal. But as the coaching staff comes together, and the possibility that Boggs will pull on a new uniform remains, I'm concerned that not only will we lose, and lose badly, but that the losses will come at the price of destroyed young arms, while Lasorda and his coaches shrug and say they did all they could. If we're really going to represent our country, our young hitters should have the opportunity for success this country aspires to give to all its citizens, and our young pitchers should retain their right to pursue happiness, not feel something tear on pitch #144 and realize it's all over.

Derek Zumsteg can be reached at dzumsteg@baseballprospectus.com.

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