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Getting back in the games

Jeff Passan
Yahoo Sports

Gold medals carry gravitas, and it was with that in mind that Paul Seiler, the CEO of USA Baseball, pointed to Mike Kinkade.

He is 33 years old now, his last major-league swing having come three years ago, his destiny that of a journeyman, and still, even with all of the hot-shot prospects in the room with millions of dollars in the offing, Seiler wanted everyone to be more like Kinkade.

Because he has a gold medal, a thick slab into which he sunk his teeth just to make sure that it was real – that everything was real. When Team USA won baseball gold in the 2000 Olympics, it was a legitimate shock, because Cuba had taken the three previous golds. And in the same vein, it might have been an even greater shock when, three years later, the United States, the birthplace and breeding ground of baseball, could not even qualify for the Athens Games, the country’s only stamp being a team of Americans with Greek ancestry who competed for Greece.

Kinkade surely is not one of the 24 best Americans excluded from a major-league 40-man roster, yet he heads to Cuba with the U.S. Olympic qualifying team today because he is an example of what Team USA can be – and, many believe, should be.

Particularly considering that baseball’s farewell tour as an Olympic sport will take place in Beijing in 2008 after the International Olympic Committee voted to abolish it as a medal sport. For the U.S. not to be there would be like the “Seinfeld” finale without Jerry.

“I realize how important it is,” said Kinkade, the only member of the 2000 team on this team. “We need to get USA back in the Olympics.”

To do that, the Americans must negotiate two round-robin pools. The first pits them in games against Brazil, Aruba, Puerto Rico, Venezuela and Canada, to whom they lost in their final exhibition Tuesday. Should they finish with one of the four best records in the pool, they advance to a second pool, where they play the four best teams from the pool with Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Colombia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Panama. The two teams with the best seven-game records against the final-pool group win Olympic berths, and the third- and fourth-place teams position themselves for a last-chance qualifying tournament in early 2008.

Last time around, the U.S. cruised through the round robin before running into Rigo Beltran, a soft-tossing left-hander from Mexico who pitched the game of his life. After the U.S. breezed through round-robin play, they entered single-elimination format, and Beltran shut down a Frank Robinson-managed team that included Joe Mauer, Grady Sizemore and Matt Holliday.

Just like that, the Americans were gone.

“I came to Panama to scout the American team,” said Davey Johnson, then a coach for Holland and now Team USA’s manager. “When they got beaten by Mexico, we were all kind of crushed.”

Seiler complained that the defending champion shouldn’t have to qualify. Reactionaries called for the further loosening of rules that would allow professionals on 40-man rosters to play. The small-minded pontificated that baseball was America and apple pie, not Mexico and churros.

What was patently evident – and what the World Baseball Classic this spring only reinforced – was that the United States had been reduced to a baseball-playing country instead of a baseball superpower. With the emergence of Japan and the Dominican Republic and Venezuela and the staying power of Cuba, the premise of a singular titan has long since vanished.

“I think it’s going to be tough for us to beat Cuba,” said Chad Allen, a member of bronze-winning Team USA in 1996 and an elder statesman on the qualifying team. “They’re going to be by far the best team. But if we throw a good game and stay close, we’ve got a legitimate chance. Our pitching staff is good enough to keep us close there.”

To select the team, Johnson, Seiler, pitching coach Marcel Lachemann and Major League Baseball’s Bob Watson, among others, held upwards of 20 conference calls. To complement Kinkade and Allen they went young with slugging shortstop Brandon Wood (Los Angeles Angels), first baseman Bryan LaHair (Seattle Mariners) and outfielder Billy Butler (Kansas City Royals). The pitching staff skews even younger, with 23-year-old Zach Segovia (Philadelphia Phillies), 22-year-old Kevin Slowey (Minnesota Twins) and the baby of the team, Nick Adenhart (Angels), who turns 20 today.

“Anybody who’s spoken to us that was a part of USA Baseball in years past never wants to be in that situation where we don’t qualify,” Wood said. “We know that was a big deal. But I think everybody’s over that.”

During that initial pep talk in which he pointed to Kinkade, Seiler also talked about representing the United States’ flag. It wasn’t a Bluto-in-“Animal House” speech, by any means, because it didn’t need to be.

“These guys are excited to be representing the United States,” Johnson said. “It doesn’t take a whole lot of motivation.

“Fact is, in qualifying for this tournament, we helped eliminate Mexico in November. We paid them back some.”

There are plenty more teams on that payback list. All the Team USA has to do is qualify.

And that might be the hardest part.

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