By MARK KNUDSON
Special to woodypaige.com
The World Baseball Classic is wildly popular in other parts of the world, even though it’s proven to be only mildly interesting to fans in the United States. Even though we invented baseball here, we’ve not faired all that well during international competitions like the WBC and the Olympics.
To be fair, most of these international events have been held either before the Major League season begins (like the WBC is) or in the middle of the North American baseball season, in which case active big leaguers have not been able to participate. So America hasn’t really flexed its true muscle on the international diamond as of yet.
The Team USA that’s been put together for the upcoming World Baseball Classic could be the best we’ve ever fielded – even though you could make a powerhouse team out of the players who are NOT participating (Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Clayton Kershaw, Kris Bryant to name a few.) This USA squad features guys like Buster Posey, Nolan Arenado, Paul Goldschmidt and Giancarlo Stanton, so they will be formidable. The best Team USA ever? We’ll have to see. Remember, no USA team has ever won the WBC.
So who do they have to pass up? Who are the best “Team USA” baseball squads ever assembled? Here’s a Six-Pack:
6. 2009 World Baseball Classic team. Going into this spring’s event, fourth place is the USA’s best finish in the 2009 WBC. Manager Davey Johnson rolled out Derek Jeter, Adam Dunn, David Wright and Jimmy Rollins but could not find the magic. Team USA suffered their only “mercy rule” (behind by 10 runs after 7 innings) loss when they were battered by Puerto Rico 11-1 in the early rounds, but they came back to oust the PR on a walk off single by Wright in the second semi-final before falling to Japan 9-4 at Dodger Stadium. Japan went on to win its second straight WBC title.
5. 2008 Olympic team. No active big leaguers were allowed to participate by MLB in the summer games, but top prospects from the minors were eligible, and guys like Dexter Fowler, Jake Arrieta, Jason Donald and Trevor Cahill powered the USA into the medal round. Unfortunately, Steven Strasburg got little run support and the bullpen melted down late as the USA fell 10-2 to Cuba in the semi-finals. Future big leaguer and frequent disabled list resident Brett Anderson pitched the American team to an 8-4 win over Japan to capture the Bronze Medal. South Korea defeated Cuba for the Gold. This was the final Olympic baseball competition until the 2020 games.
4. 1996 Olympic team. With baseball finally an official “medal” sport, Team USA had home field advantage in Atlanta. They rolled into the medal round unbeaten behind guys like Kris Benson, R.A. Dickey, Troy Glaus, Jeff Weaver and Travis Lee. International nemesis Japan ended the gold medal dreams with an 11-2 drubbing in the semi-finals, but Team USA bounced back to claim the Bronze Medal with a 10-3 drubbing of Nicaragua. The American’s went 6-1 in the tournament. Cuba beat Japan for the Gold.
3. 1984 Olympic team. Baseball was a demonstration sport – not part of the official medal competition yet – but that did not matter to future Hall of Famer Barry Larkin, or Mark McGwire, Will Clark, Cory Snyder, Billy Swift and B.J. Surhoff. A squad full of future big leaguers acquitted themselves quite nicely against the best players from other nations, falling 6-3 to Japan in the final and settling for second place (silver) in Los Angeles.
2. 1988 Olympic team. How’s this for another list of future big league standouts: Jim Abbott, Andy Benes, Tino Martinez, Scott Servais and Robin Ventura. After finishing first in their “pool,” this squad was not playing for an official medal, with baseball still in the ‘demonstration’ phase of Olympic competition. Even so, they rolled to a first place (gold) finish, beating nemesis Japan (and Hideo Nomo) 5-3 in the title game.
1. 2000 Olympic team: Cue Al Michaels “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!” The young, no-named USA squad was to have little chance against the very best players from Cuba and elsewhere. But the old Master, former Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy LaSorda, found a magic rosin bag and covered future Major League standout pitcher Ben Sheets in it. Led by out-of-work big leaguers Pat Borders, Roy Oswalt and Doug Mientkiewicz and riding Sheets brilliant three-hit shutout in the title game, the United States won it’s only Olympic Gold Medal to date, beating the big bad Cubans 4-0. It was only Cuba’s second loss in international competition to that point, and the first time they did not win the Olympic Gold.