Olympic Hockey makes me miss Olympic Baseball

Mark McGwire and Oddibe McDowell were teammates on the 1984 Team USA baseball team, a “demonstration sport” at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

Last night, I joined the rest of the Twitter universe – or at least those with MSNBC – in watching the immensely entertaining and surprising opening-round victory by Team USA over Canada in Olympic hockey. From the early first-period goal that put the Americans out in front, to the even quicker response-goal that put them back on top 2-1, to the final empty net goal that sealed the victory in a hectic last four minutes, it was one of most exciting hockey games that I’ve ever seen. The fact that it was in Canada in front of a very partisan crowd made it that much more fun to watch.

The only thing that would have made it better were if it were a baseball game. Seeing a high-flying game like that played on a baseball diamond rather than in a hockey rink, between two national teams that were killing themselves to get the victory, could go down as one of my favorite baseball memories ever. The World Baseball Classic tries to make this happen, but it just hasn’t worked yet. I’m one of the few fans out there who would really like to see it succeed, but even I have to admit that it’s going to be a long time before we see a WBC version of the USA/Canada game from last night.

It wasn’t always like that, though.

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In 1984, Los Angeles hosted the Summer Olympics. The Soviets were boycotting the games in response to the US’s boycott of the 1980 Moscow games, but that didn’t stop America from going all out to showcase itself to the world. Part of this effort was making baseball a part of the Olympics. The IOC agreed to allow baseball as a “demonstration sport” that summer. The games would be played as if they were a part of the Olympics, but no medals would be handed out. The Americans put together an all-star roster of amateur talent that spring, and the team toured the country, playing other teams and getting everyone excited for the Olympics.

From a Sports Illustrated article that summer:

On the Fourth of July the United States Olympic baseball team played the Stan Musial All-Stars in Battle Creek, Mich. Last December, before the 1984 Winter Olympics, the U.S. hockey team had played the Canadian team in Battle Creek. The U.S. baseball team performed to a screaming, overflow crowd of 7,200. The hockey team drew 2,100, a little more than half the building.

Forget about phony hoopla and false hopes. This is the real America’s Team, and it will play America’s Sport at America’s Olympics. In a possible prelude to achieving full medal status for baseball at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, the U.S. and seven other countries—Chinese- Taipei, South Korea, Japan, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Canada and Italy—will stage a demonstration of the sport at Dodger Stadium from July 31 through Aug. 7, with each team playing four games before the semifinals.

See? It wasn’t that long ago that Americans cared about their national baseball team as much as their national hockey team. The ’84 USA team was pretty special. Maybe it had something to do with the tryout process:

More than 3,000 candidates, including a 12-year-old girl and a 43-year-old man, participated in 63 open one-day tryouts that began last fall, and from the masses [coach Rod] Dedeaux and his staff have assembled a team that is impressive from top to bottom.

Okay, maybe not. I do love the fact that a 12-year old girl tried out for the team, though. Among the successful major leaguers that beat her out for a spot on the roster were: Mark McGwire, Will Clark, Barry Larkin, B.J. Surhoff, Oddibe McDowell, Shane Mack, Cory Snyder, Scott Bankhead, Bill Swift, and Bobby Witt.

In Fenway Park last Friday, the Olympians walloped a Boston park league team 17-2. Clark smashed three taters, and gargantuan first baseman Mark McGwire of USC bounced a shot off the concrete wall above the centerfield fence. “That’s a major league dinger,” the Angels’ Reggie Jackson, who was waiting to play the Red Sox, told McGwire when he entered the dugout. “But you need to work on that trot. Take more time getting out of the box.”

The largest player is the 6’5″, 220-pound McGwire, whom Minnesota scouting director George Brophy compares to Dave Kingman. McGwire, 20, hit 31 homers for USC this season and was Oakland’s No. 1 draft pick. The smallest player on the team is 5’9″, 165-pound Oddibe McDowell, 21, a bubbly centerfielder and leadoff man who was Baseball America’s collegiate Player of the Year this season at Arizona State. He was the Rangers’ No. 1 pick last month, the sixth time in his amateur career he had been drafted.

It was easy to see how America’s team might take gold, figuratively, at America’s sport in America’s games. McGwire sounded confident about it.

“I don’t see how we can miss getting the gold,” says McGwire. “The only team that could have competed with us was the Cubans. It’s too bad they’re boycotting. The teams we’re playing just can’t compete with our power.”

But that’s not what happened. The US breezed through the first two rounds, but couldn’t handle Team Japan in the final, losing 6-3. The sport was played again in 1988 in Seoul as a demonstration sport, and debuted as a medal sport in 1992. The 2008 Beijing games may well be the last time it is played in Olympic competition, though, as it has been rejected from the 2012 and 2016 games.

After watching the way the two teams battled it out on the ice last night – in a non-medal game, no less – it seems like such a shame that we won’t get to see something similar in Olympic baseball or even the World Baseball Classic. I don’t know all of the factors (though I could probably speculate on a few), but international baseball just doesn’t have that same kind of cachet. It is nice to know that that wasn’t always the case, though, as the 1984 baseball team proves. Let’s hope we can get back there eventually.

Larry Granillo

About Larry Granillo

Larry Granillo has been writing Wezen Ball since 2008 and has dealt with such touchy topics as Charlie Brown's baseball stats and Ferris Bueller's day off. In 2010, he got the bright idea to time every home run trot in baseball; he has been missing ever since.