Futures Gamers hoping to go to Beijing
Prospects in Sunday's game could represent US in Olympics
NEW YORK -- The hallowed Bronx grounds that showcased Ruth and Gehrig, DiMaggio, Berra and Mantle, Jackson and Jeter ... Dozens of Major League scouts in the stands ... A fleeting opportunity to show your stuff on the grandest of baseball stages.
As if absorbing all of that wasn't enough of a sensory challenge for members of the U.S. Team in Sunday's XM All-Star Futures Game at Yankee Stadium, there was the business of making one last lasting impression in their bid for a Team USA assignment in the Beijing Summer Games next month.
For manager Davey Johnson and his staff, a 3-0 loss to the World Team provided an opportunity to familiarize themselves with players who will form the nucleus of the outfit that will take on Canada, China, Cuba, Japan, The Netherlands, South Korea and Taiwan in pursuit of a gold medal.
The team is set to be announced on Wednesday at 2 p.m. ET on MLB.com. But even those choices won't be etched in stone, given the possibility that players can be called up to their Major League clubs before the July 26 deadline for submitting rosters.
Fully aware of the anxieties at play with his young athletes, Johnson emphasized in a pregame meeting that it was just another baseball game and that they should enjoy themselves. But the environment, as Padres pitching prospect Will Inman put it, "was a little overwhelming. This was my first time on a big league field, and that's true of a lot of the guys."
While the overall trial didn't go too well for the Americans, the experience was just another step in the process outlined by Johnson.
"Don't try to be Superman is basically what he was saying," outfielder Andrew McCutcheon of the Pirates said, having gone hitless in two at-bats with one long drive that hooked foul. "Enjoy yourself. Don't try to take out the catcher or flip over the fence in foul territory to try to catch a ball. Play hard, but don't do anything crazy."
Most of the decisions on the team's makeup already have been made, Johnson indicated.
"I told them this wasn't an audition," the manager said. "We know about these guys. Everybody in that room will play a lot better once they make that team."
The U.S. team was held to three hits: a double by Wes Hodges (Indians) and singles by Jason Donald (Phillies) and Matt LaPorta (Indians). Inman and Jess Todd (Cardinals) each worked hitless innings among the nine pitchers showing their stuff for Johnson and pitching coach Marcel Lachemann.
"The physical part, being able to see them from a pitching standpoint, is important," Lachemann said. "You see their deliveries, project how they'd be able to hold up. The international game is different; there's a lot of posturing. Makeup becomes as important as the physical part."
One of the most experienced of the U.S. players is infielder Chris Valaika of the Reds. He has worn Team USA colors from age 16 through his college years at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
"The next few days, honestly, are kind of scary," Valaika said. "It's an honor to be asked to play in this game, and now it is all in their hands. It would be kind of the icing on the cake to make the team.
"It's a different environment when you play in that [international] environment. It's exciting to go into those games knowing nobody likes you, how hostile it is all the time."
McCutcheon, a prototypical leadoff man, is looking to make a memory for a lifetime in Beijing.
"That'd be awesome, to play for the U.S., to wear that 'USA' across your chest and represent your country," McCutcheon said. "That's always a good thing to have as you look back. Hopefully, I'll be able to do that."
Team USA nailed down a Beijing berth in the 2006 Americas Olympic Qualifying Tournament, subduing Cuba in Havana in the title game. The Americans repeated that triumph in Taiwan in the World Cup in November, the first time since 1974 the U.S. had claimed gold in that event.
It was with an eye toward Beijing that USA Baseball assembled its roster for the Futures Game, inviting players it feels might be liberated by their Major League clubs to represent their country in the Olympics.
It was a blend of veterans and prospects Tommy Lasorda guided to gold in the 2000 Games in Sydney, Australia. Brewers ace Ben Sheets made a name for himself by shutting down Cuba in the gold-medal finale with respected veteran Pat Borders behind the plate.
There will be a few older players on the squad, but it's unlikely there will be anyone with Borders' resume in Beijing. Johnson said Roger Clemens hasn't inquired and won't be on the team. And Barry Bonds will not bat cleanup.
Johnson's vast experience as a player and manager made him an ideal choice to lead the 2008 Olympic team after it was unable to qualify for the 2004 Athens Games.
As the second baseman on some great Orioles teams under manager Earl Weaver in the 1960s and 1970s, before managing the Mets on their unforgettable 1986 journey to the World Series title, Johnson had been in the vanguard of statistical analysis. Weaver wasn't too interested in what his computer informed him, Johnson once recalled with a grin.
Now, decades later, Johnson is using data such as on-base and slugging percentage and strikeout-to-walk ratios to determine the best candidates to bring home the gold from Beijing.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.