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2021 Olympics – USA Baseball, a team of has-beens and not-yets, aiming for gold

Any hardcore hardball fan who has perused the rosters of the six Olympic baseball teams competing in Tokyo, particularly USA Baseball, has probably felt more than a little like the characters in the 1989 cinematic classic “Major League.”

“I never heard of half of these guys, and the ones I do know are way past their prime.

And like the fictional Cleveland team of the silver screen, this lineup of seeming has-beens and not-yets is an easy group to support, representing the United States for baseball’s return to the Olympics from a 13-year absence.

Team USA, which has posted back-to-back wins against Israel and South Korea in the opening round of the Olympic tournament, consists of an even 12 pitchers and 12 position players. That list includes four former MLB All-Stars, including infielder Todd “The Toddfather” Frazier, who last pitched for his hometown team, the independent Sussex County Miners of the Frontier League. The night after he left for pre-Olympic training camp, some Miners got into a brawl with fans who poured beer on them during a hot dog eating contest (“Got out of there in the nick of time.”) He’s joined by hurlers Edwin Jackson, who threw a no-hitter for the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2010, David Robertson, who won a World Series in 2009 and the World Baseball Classic in 2017 and ageless lefty Scott Kazmir.

Kazmir started this season with the San Francisco Giants, the first time the 37-year-old had appeared in a big-league game in five years. After two weeks and three appearances, the Giants designated Kazmir for assignment. With Triple-A Sacramento, he rediscovered his groove and immediately called USA Baseball. Making that call had been in the back of his mind since summer 2020, when during a simple game of catch with Seattle Mariners pitcher Kendall Graveman, Kazmir sensed he still had some pop in an arm that hadn’t seen action since 2016. When he started a push to pitch again, most assumed the focus was on an MLB comeback.

In reality, he always had one eye looking at Tokyo.

“I was retired and happy one year ago, but I thought about it last year and when the Olympics got postponed. I kept that in the back of my head and kept at it,” Kazmir said two weeks ago as the team gathered at the USA Baseball complex in Cary, North Carolina. “I still kept that in the back of my head, knowing that I would love the opportunity. I needed to get a lot of reps to get back in the swing of things in pro ball, and I feel like that set me up pretty well for this opportunity that I have now.

“To be able to represent my country in the Olympics, it’s something that you dream about as a kid.”

The rest of the 24-man team is made up of minor leaguers, though 14 members of the team have made it up to the Show for a cup of coffee at least. They’re all hungry to reach the next level, and their manager Mike Scioscia hopes to tap into that hunger over the next week.

“What I love about these guys is that every single one of them want to be on this team,” Scioscia explained in mid-July from the USA Baseball complex, just as those guys were reporting to the Raleigh suburb for a one-week camp that included a three-game warmup series with the USA collegiate team. “We have 24 ballplayers with 24 different stories, all at their own place in their baseball lives. It’s been what I really love most about a clubhouse, getting veterans and young guys and guys in between, all in the same place with the same goal: to win a gold medal. We have guys who have won World Series and college championships and you name it.

“But not a one of us has an Olympic gold medal.”

The 62-year-old, who owns three World Series rings, two as a player and one as a manager, added a quick reminder. “Now, we do have a guy who has an Olympic medal. A silver one. No one wants a gold medal more than Eddy does.”

Scioscia was speaking of infielder Eddy Alvarez. And no, the South Florida native didn’t earn his silver medal in baseball. No one has won an Olympic baseball medal of any kind since South Korea, Cuba and the United States finished 1-2-3, respectively, in the 2008 Beijing Games.

Alvarez, aka Eddy the Jet, won silver in the 2014 Sochi Games. Yes, a man from Miami in the Winter Olympics. He was listed among the favorites to win gold in four different speed skating events, but after a collision disqualification, being taken out by a falling rival and a fall blamed on soft ice, he made the finals in only one of those events, the 5000-meter relay. His team lost to Russia by .271 seconds.

That summer, Alvarez was signed by the White Sox. After battling his way up the minor-league ladder, he made his MLB debut on Aug. 5, 2020, playing for his hometown team, the Miami Marlins. He became just the second human to own an Olympic medal and a big-league at-bat. The other is Jim Thorpe. A month later, he was sent down to Class AAA Jacksonville. In May 2021 he was named to Team USA.

Last week, when the United States Olympians walked out of the tunnel during the Opening Ceremonies, Alvarez was carrying the Stars and Stripes alongside Sue Bird. As soon as his baseball team took the field on Friday morning, the son of Cuban immigrants who turned rollerblading in South Florida into an Olympic silver medal, became the 129th athlete to compete at both the Winter and Summer Games. So if Team USA Baseball finishes on the podium, he will become the sixth athlete in the 125 years of the modern Olympics to win a medal in both.

But the Jet doesn’t want any medal. He wants the medal.

“I have unfinished business,” the 31-year-old said two weeks ago, moments after accidentally letting the cat out of the bag that he was a finalist to carry to flag (“Please don’t write that!”). “Imagine getting that close, less than three-tenths of a second from gold. Then imagine getting a second chance. That never happens. Now, it’s happening. I am not going to waste it. And I am surrounded by a group of guys who are just as driven as I am.”

While Alvarez is getting a second chance at gold, this is likely the last chance at alchemy for anyone on this team. Japan petitioned to have baseball resurrected in Tokyo, and though it will not be on the schedule in Paris three years from now, the push has already started to have baseball in Los Angeles in 2028, where it made its debut as an Olympic demonstration sport in 1984.

That summer, the ’84 Olympics seized the attention and imagination of the American public more than any Games before, and perhaps none since. They were on every television from coast to coast, including the clubhouse of the Los Angeles Dodgers, who were sent on the road so that Dodger Stadium could host Olympic baseball. Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda loved it — he couldn’t stop talking about it. He said that if baseball became a permanent Olympic sport, he wanted to be the coach and win gold for America.

Scioscia was the catcher on that Dodgers team. He has never forgotten hearing Lasorda talk about his Olympic dreams in 1984 — he still gets choked up when he recalls his conversations with his manager in 2000, when Lasorda returned home from the Sydney Games, having led Team USA to the top of the podium. As a manager, Lasorda won two World Series, 1,599 games and was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1997. But to his last day, he wept whenever he talked about what he called “the greatest moment of my baseball life.”

“I never saw Tommy cry during our Dodgers celebrations like he did when the United States won the gold medal,” Scioscia said, pausing to gather up his composure. “He had tears coming down his face. He was so proud. He was so excited to have that opportunity. It meant so much to him to win not just for a city like Los Angeles, but for the entire nation. I hope I get that opportunity to experience that, too.”

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