A Silver Lining : Talented ’84 U.S. Baseball Team Didn’t Get the Gold, but the Sport Proved to Be an International Winner
It was the original dream team.
Maybe the greatest amateur team ever.
But it didn’t win.
Or did it?
“We were not only playing for ourselves, but for the guys who came after us,” said Will Clark, the San Francisco Giants’ first baseman, reflecting on the 1984 U.S. Olympic baseball team.
Clark was a member of that powerhouse team that lost to Japan, 6-3, in the championship game of the demonstration tournament during the Los Angeles Olympics but helped sell the amateur program to the world.
South Korea bought in, nominating baseball as a demonstration sport in the 1988 Olympics at Seoul, and the International Olympic Committee then made it an official medal sport, starting with the Barcelona Games, which open Saturday.
“It’s a dream come true,” said Rod Dedeaux, the legendary former USC coach who was at the helm of the 1984 team and has been at the forefront of the amateur baseball movement since 1945, the goal being Olympic gold.
“We caught the imagination of the whole baseball world in ‘84,” Dedeaux said of what he viewed as more success than failure. “I always felt that winning or losing was secondary to the fact that we showcased baseball to the world. The name of the game was selling international baseball.”
In Los Angeles, it was a virtual sellout. The eight-day, 16-game tournament at Dodger Stadium drew 385,285 fans, an average of 48,161, but although it helped produce international acceptance, the U.S. team had a different reaction to its loss.
“Disbelief,” said former Fresno State pitcher John Hoover, the 2-1 winner over Taiwan in the first game of the tournament and the loser to Japan.
“We had beaten the Japanese numerous times on the (pre-Olympic) tour, and we were by far the best team in the tournament,” Hoover said. “Put us on the field 10 times and we’d have won nine times. We just didn’t win that day, but that’s the way baseball is.”
How strong was the U.S. team?
Greg Swindell, Norm Charlton, Drew Hall and Ken Caminiti, all future major leaguers, were among those who failed to survive the last cut.
--Of the 20 players on the roster, 13 were first-round draft picks in 1984 and five went during the first round in 1985.
The 1984 selections were Don August, Scott Bankhead, Bob Caffrey, Mike Dunne, Gary Green, Shane Mack, John Marzano, Oddibe McDowell, Mark McGwire, Pat Pacillo, Cory Snyder, Bill Swift and Hoover.
The 1985 picks were Chris Gwynn, Barry Larkin, B.J. Surhoff, Bobby Witt and Clark.
The only two players who were not selected during the first round either year were pitcher Sid Akins, a third-round selection by the Texas Rangers in 1984, and infielder Flavio Alfaro, a fourth-round pick by the New York Mets in that year.
--Of the 20, only three--Akins, Alfaro and Caffrey--failed to reach the majors and only six--Akins, Alfaro, Caffrey, Hoover, McDowell and Pacillo--are not still playing.
August, Dunne and Green are at triple A. Bankhead, Clark, Gwynn, Larkin, Mack, Marzano, McGwire, Snyder, Surhoff, Swift and Witt remain in the majors.
“People may not have recognized it at the time, but that was definitely a dream team,” said McGwire, the Oakland A’s first baseman.
Said Dedeaux: “It was a team of super potential. People rightly feel that it may have been the greatest assembly of amateur talent ever. But you have to also remember that it was a very young team that did not have the international experience of the Japanese team. There were people who felt we should have dominated, but the fact is we were third in the world at that time to Cuba and Japan.”
Baseball had been a demonstration sport in six previous Olympics, but in almost each instance the demonstration consisted of two teams playing one game, sometimes on a makeshift diamond in the middle of a track and field layout.
Although Cuba joined the Eastern-bloc boycott of the Los Angeles Games, the eight-team field included Japan, Canada, South Korea, Taiwan, Nicaragua, Italy, the Dominican Republic and the United States, which went 28-4-1 on a national tour preceding the Games, a barnstorming exhibition that some felt contributed to the final defeat.
“None of us had ever traveled much before, but it didn’t take long for us to learn that we could complain about just about everything,” said McDowell, the former Arizona State outfielder. “We were up at 4 every morning, busing or flying to the next city. We lived on cold cuts, I think, and it eventually took a toll. I mean, we did as well as we could do under the circumstances.”
In the Olympics, the United States, with an age span of 19-22, swept its three division games, outscoring the opposition by 30-2 while hitting eight home runs and batting .353.
Hoover, a breaking-ball specialist who had led the nation in victories and strikeouts at Fresno State that year, pitched a four-hitter for the 2-1 victory over Taiwan before 52,319. Marzano, now a reserve catcher with the Boston Red Sox, hit a solo homer, and Clark singled to drive in a second run.
Game 2 was a laugher. The United States had 13 batters during the first inning of a 16-1 victory over Italy and seven got hits. The United States got 18 hits overall, including home runs by Mack, Clark and McDowell, who had three hits and five runs batted in.
In Game 3, the United States routed the Dominican Republic, 12-0. Swift, drafted by the Seattle Mariners from the University of Maine and now starting for the Giants, pitched six shutout innings. Snyder, who attended Brigham Young and Canyon Country High and has revived his career with the Giants this year, hit a three-run homer. Clark, the Mississippi State sophomore, went four for five and hit two two-run homers.
Said Dedeaux, who coached the Trojans to 1,332 victories, 28 conference titles and 11 national championships: “I put Will in a class with Fred Lynn and Ron Fairly as having the most natural swings I’ve ever seen.”
The United States defeated South Korea, 5-2, before 54,521 in the semifinals while getting only six hits.
The victory left the United States 4-0--Japan went into the final 3-1--but the robust hitting of the preliminary round continued to fade. The United States got only seven hits, including a solo homer by Mack and a two-run shot by Snyder. Hoover trailed by 3-1 during the seventh when a one-out error by Snyder at third base and a two-out ground single set the stage for a three-run homer by Katsumi Hirosawa, giving Japan a five-run lead.
Eight years later, some of the U.S. players still wonder why Dedeaux went so far with Hoover, who had pitched a complete game in the opener, when he had the hard-throwing Witt and others in the bullpen.
Said Witt, now starting for the Rangers: “I was ready. I had warmed up for the first time in the fourth or fifth inning. I’d had a good tour and would like to have pitched in that situation.”
Said Clark: “Once we got behind 6-1, it was a long way to come back. The one thing we had noticed about the Japanese on the tour is that they were good breaking-ball hitters, but had trouble with the fastball. We had a breaking-ball pitcher on the mound who may have been running out of gas.
“We had fresh pitchers like Witt, Swift and August in the bullpen. I had a great time with that team, but that’s one thing some of us talked about then, and we still talk about now.”
Dedeaux, however, saw it differently. He said Hoover was in trouble only because of the error and the ground single and had shown no signs of tiring. He said Hirosawa was the one Japanese hitter who had trouble with breaking balls, and he had his best breaking-ball pitcher on the mound.
“John got a breaking ball up and he hit it,” Dedeaux said. “It was probably his only bad pitch of the game.”
Hoover said it isn’t something that has stayed with him.
“I threw a million pitches in my career, maybe a billion,” he said. “A lot of them were good, some were bad. I left a curveball up and he did what any good hitter would do with it. The only frustrating part is that I don’t think he had gotten a hit off me on the tour or in Japan the previous year when I was a member of the Pan American team.”
Now preparing for a career in law enforcement at the Fresno police academy, Hoover went right from the Olympics to the Orioles’ triple-A team at Rochester. He threw an estimated 400 innings that year, and by the next spring his arm wasn’t the same. He had lost velocity and was forced to become a different pitcher. He drifted from the Orioles to the Montreal Expos to the Texas Rangers, pitching in two major league games in 1990, the year was released.
“I didn’t get picked up and didn’t pursue it like I should have, but I felt it was time to move on,” he said. “Texas offered me a coaching job, but I have other interests.
“I had a good time in baseball, but I’m not frustrated or disappointed that I’m not playing, that my professional career wasn’t more successful.
“I mean, I did some things people only dream of doing. I had more fun than anyone has a right to have. I traveled all over the world. I was a member of probably the best amateur baseball team ever. That alone, being in the Olympics with that team, was unbelievable, overwhelming.”
For Oddibe McDowell, warm memories of the opening ceremony and being part of one of the great teams isn’t always enough.
On a team of can’t-miss prospects, most remember the Arizona State senior center fielder as the one who definitely wouldn’t miss.
He batted .405 with 23 homers, 74 RBIs and 36 stolen bases in his final year at Arizona State. He had speed, power, the ability to hit for average.
“All of us thought it would be a real surprise if Oddibe didn’t make it,” Clark said.
McDowell made it faster than any of the others. He played 31 games in triple-A at the start of the 1985 season, then joined the Rangers for the rest of the year, stealing 25 bases and batting .239 in 406 at-bats.
He batted .266 and stole 33 bases in 572 at-bats in 1986 but felt he never really had a regular role in an abbreviated career that took him to Cleveland, Atlanta, the Baltimore minor league system and finally Edmonton of the Angels’ system this year. He recently required surgery for a rotator-cuff tear, and, at 29, isn’t sure he will play again.
McGwire said his first thoughts of 1984 are of the grueling nature of the tour and the disappointment of losing.
He also said he isn’t sure he would go the Olympic route again.
“Maybe it’s different for kids now, maybe there’s more emphasis on the Olympics, but to me, major league baseball is more important than Olympic baseball,” he said. “I think the experience prepared me for the travel and playing in front of big crowds, but who knows? I may have made it to the majors a year sooner (if it hadn’t been for the Olympics). If I had to do it again, I don’t know if I would.”
McGwire had hit 32 home runs and driven in 80 runs for USC in ‘84, but in the five games of the Olympic tournament he was four for 21 with no RBIs and six strikeouts.
Said Clark: “After all the games on the tour, after the four games in the tournament, I think we were worn down, exhausted, and just picked a bad day to have a bad game, which was unfortunate. To hear 55,000 people in Dodger Stadium every day screaming ‘U.S.A., U.S.A’ filled you with a sense of pride, but losing left a bitter taste with a lot of us. Even though we got a silver medal, it wasn’t what we wanted. We knew we were a lot better team.”
Said Dedeaux, smiling: “Maybe the coaches did a bad job.”
During his 27-year effort to spread the amateur game--77 nations are now part of the International Baseball Assn.--Dedeaux believes there are still changes needed in the U.S. program.
He would recommend:
--To the major leagues that they stop drafting college juniors.
--To the NCAA that the U.S team, rather than making an exhausting annual tour to benefit commercial interests, be allowed to play each summer in one of the pro instructional leagues, gaining experience against tougher competition with more time to work on fundamentals.
--To the NCAA, as well, that it find a way to restore college eligibility to former pros.
Dedeaux remembers 1984 as a successful steppingstone toward Olympic approval. He is not haunted by the final score of the final game. For some, the original dream team helped achieve a dream of another kind.
A Major Stockpile of Talent
The 20 members of the 1984 United States Olympic baseball team, all drafted by major league teams:
Player Pos. Drafted By Round Year Where Now Sid Akins P Texas 3rd 1984 Retired Flavio Alfaro 2B New York Mets 4th 1984 Retired Don August P Houston 1st 1984 Toledo (triple-A) Scott Bankhead P Kansas City 1st 1984 Cincinnati Bob Caffrey C Montreal 1st 1984 Retired Will Clark 1B San Francisco 1st 1985 San Francisco Mike Dunne P St. Louis 1st 1984 Vancouver (triple-A) Gary Green SS San Diego 1st 1984 Nashville (triple-A) Chris Gwynn OF Dodgers 1st 1985 Kansas City John Hoover P Baltimore 1st 1984 Retired Barry Larkin SS Cincinnati 1st 1985 Cincinnati Shane Mack OF San Diego 1st 1984 Minnesota John Marzano C Boston 1st 1984 Boston Oddibe McDowell OF Texas 1st 1984 Retired Mark McGwire P Oakland 1st 1984 Oakland Pat Pacillo P Cincinnati 1st 1984 Retired Cory Snyder 3B Cleveland 1st 1984 San Francisco B.J. Surhoff C Milwaukee 1st 1985 Milwaukee Billy Swift P Seattle 1st 1984 San Francisco Bobby Witt P Texas 1st 1985 Texas
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