After 8-3 loss to Japan, is U.S. past prime in national pastime?


BARCELONA, Spain -- Oh well, there is always 1996.

Maybe by then, the United States will have a new system for selecting an Olympic baseball team.

And the Cubans will be old, the Japanese will have moved on to their professional league and the Taiwan players will have become potbellied coaches for Little League World Series contenders.

The United States failed to win a medal in its national pastime yesterday, losing to Japan, 8-3, in the bronze-medal game of the 1992 Summer Games.

The United States was expected to challenge Cuba and Japan for the gold, but the Americans never came close. Cuba -- which won the gold yesterday by beating Taiwan, 11-1 -- routed the United States twice by a combined score of 15-7.

The Americans lost twice to the Japanese as well, by a combined margin of 15-4.

And while the Cubans and Japanese were beating up on the Americans, Taiwan slipped in for a silver medal.

Maybe a new world order is in place.

"We handled the Spains and Puerto Ricos, but couldn't handle the powers like Japan, Cuba and Chinese-Taipei [Taiwan]," said U.S. coach Ron Fraser, who ended his 30-year coaching career yesterday. "I thought Chinese-Taipei was a good club. They beat Japan twice, and Japan beat us twice. The two best teams played for the gold medal."

Japan was so upset about losing to Taiwan that it almost didn't show up for yesterday's game.

"After we lost to them last night, we almost gave up," said Japan coach Masatake Yamanaka. "We were very depressed, but decided to show up for the game at the very last minute. I'm happy we [beat the U.S.] team for second time."

Where does the United States go from here?

Baseball had been played as an Olympic demonstration sport or exhibition seven times. No matter the format, though, the United States was best in every instance but one, a 1984 upset by Japan.

But this year was the first time baseball was a full medal sport, and the United States did not make a strong showing.

Fraser cited two reasons. First, the team was together only seven weeks before the Olympics, compared with at least four years for the teams from Cuba and Taiwan.

"It's just not much time to prepare," said Fraser, whose team included 11 No. 1 draft picks. "Our summer tour was grueling, and we thought if we could win a medal, it would be a great success. I think if we had another two months, we could compete with Japan and Cuba."

Yamanaka agreed.

"The U.S. team [is] very powerful and I believe they have a lot of potential," he said. "But we beat them today, maybe because they are not so experienced. Maybe if we play the U.S. team for a month, the U.S. team might win."

Second, Fraser said, major-league owners sign the best players as quickly as possible.

"They dangle millions in front of a kid, and they're leaving the colleges early," Fraser said. "Who can blame them? Nobody is going to turn down a million dollars. In turn, they have watered down the system."

He says that if the United States wants to be competitive, maybe it should institute a system similar to the ones in Japan or Taiwan.

"Chinese-Taipei froze players for two years, not allowing them to go to another level. They had to play for their country, but I'm not sure agents in the U.S. will go for that," he said. "In Japan, companies lure them away, pay them to work and compete.

"Maybe IBM has to come along in America and say, 'Hey kid, we'll pay you to compete and play for your country.' I don't think there's going to be a dream team in baseball."

Said U.S. pitcher Robert Alkire: "Coach has some interesting concepts, but who knows if they will work. We're talking about a different society."

The present U.S. team could one day become a dream team. The Americans have tremendous potential and didn't play badly yesterday. But they were still reeling from their 6-1 loss to Cuba on Tuesday night.

"We were a little banged up, and I don't really think our hearts were in it," said second baseman Chris Wimmer. "Cuba is a real tough team to play. They take a lot out of a team physically and mentally."

Japan had two four-run innings, but only one was needed.

The United States scored twice in the fourth inning and once in the fifth, but both times left runners in scoring position. The biggest squandered opportunity came in the fifth with the bases loaded. Michael Tucker flied out to right and Chad McConnell grounded out to second.

"If somebody told us that we were going to come together, bust our butts for two months, come to Spain at 5 in the morning, and not win a medal, I don't think any of us would have come," Alkire said.

Center fielder Jeffrey Hammonds, the Orioles' signed No. 1 draft pick, agreed.

"It was two months of hard times," Hammonds said. "Right now, I'm questioning why we went through all this and didn't come away with a medal. I don't feel we're a fourth-place team. We're much better than we showed."

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