Wait is almost over for Amazing games
Weather halts exhibition play, but US baseball squad is jelling
BEIJING -- Thunderstorms rolled through the Chinese capital on Sunday with the same rumbling percussion as the 2008 Fou Formation drums that kicked off the Opening Ceremony two nights earlier as a throwback to the Xia and Shang dynasties. The weather played havoc with arrows fired by precision archers, halted rowing, cooled off masses of spectators bustling on the Olympic Green, and canceled a scheduled exhibition baseball game between the United States and host China.
The U.S. team sat in its dugout of Field 2 at the Wukesong Stadium complex -- while the basketball competition enjoyed the luxury of indoor games in an adjacent building -- patiently waiting as several pitchers finished simulated throwing under cover. In this moment, you could look at the faces of all the baseball players, watching them as they got to know each other a little better, realizing that for a fortnight in their playing life, the be-all/end-all was no longer that of reaching the Major Leagues, but rather taking advantage of an opportunity to win a gold medal for their country.
"Amazing Awaits" is the theme of the U.S. Olympic Committee for these Games, and the wait is almost over. For these 23 Minor Leaguers and one college wunderkind (pitcher Stephen Strasburg of San Diego State), the Summer Olympics start at 6 p.m. local time on Wednesday against Korea as the eight-nation tournament gets under way. The U.S. team will try one more time for an exhibition against China at 6 p.m. local time on Monday, and then it will be about proving who's best in a field that also includes traditional powerhouse Cuba, Canada, Japan, Chinese Taipei and the Netherlands.
"Walking into the Opening Ceremonies the other day, it did give me chills because I have always been a fan of the Olympics and a fan of USA Baseball," said infielder Brian Barden, a Cardinals prospect who has played in 98 games for Triple-A Memphis this year. "Being here, with the chance to wear the uniform and the colors, it is a great feeling. It is something that you really don't think you will ever get to be part of and it is very special to me. ... I know we're very excited to get the Games going and get some spectators in here."
"A lot of the older guys, we know what it takes to get our bodies ready for a game," said third baseman Mike Hessman, a 13-year pro in the Tigers organization, who is on his first overseas trip, on loan to the Olympic Movement during a huge season with 32 homers and 66 RBIs for Triple-A Toledo. "We have played against each other, we know each other and there is a lot of familiarity. The young guys we don't know as much but we sit there and watch them play, and they have a heck of a lot of talent."
Sitting next to Hessman in the dugout was a pitcher holding a well-used practice ball in his hand with a circle-change grip -- manager Davey Johnson walked past him and noticed that, of course -- just beaming about the opportunity that has been handed to him. His name is Jeremy Cummings, and his story is akin to those that NBC likes to profile to jerk the tears out of you when medal time comes around. There are plenty of those stories on this particular U.S. roster, but Cummings' is just too improbable.
At the start of this season, Cummings, 32, was about ready to hang it up. A decade had flown by without a sniff of The Show. That can get to you. His wife Kelly, in her third year of med school back at Marshall University in Cummings' home state of West Virginia, was pregnant. A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do, and with only some independent league teams calling, Cummings was all set to stop dreaming and head home and start telling stories.
Then came the chain of events that put him into the dugout for Team USA, with "Beijing 2008" signs everywhere he looked. Toronto released him out of Spring Training. A new agent, John Grossman, called him, asking if he'd consider Taiwan. "He said, 'The baseball's so-so, but the money's good.' Minor Leaguers don't make a whole lot of money. That was the deciding factor."
Cummings went there, dominated, and after a month, "Tampa Bay called my agent and said, 'Can you get him back over here? We'll sign him to Triple-A." The Rays gave him three days to get back, a maze of connecting flights and buses, and finally, after seven days without pitching, he was throwing six impressive innings for Durham against first-place Pawtucket.
That was on May 13. In his first five games, brought to life by that circle-change "out pitch" that he'll throw in any situation, Cummings was "playing the best I've played in my career."
He was 5-0 with a 0.82 ERA after those first five starts. "That put me on the map," he recalled, as buses waited outside to take the U.S. team back to the Athlete Village, where buildings C3 and C9 are devoted to U.S. participants.
Cummings was suddenly a hot commodity who just happened to be pitching in the backyard of USA Baseball. Soon, he would be named as one of the three replacements to fill vacancies on the final Olympic roster. Paul Siler, executive director of USA Baseball, was in the Wukesong dugout with a knowing smile as he heard Cummings telling the story of how it led to this moment for him. If you want to know, just ask Siler:
"It was funny, because our offices are right there in Durham. As we called guys along the way, 99 percent of them are [only reached through] phone calls. I told somebody to bring Jeremy over. We at least got to put a face with a name way in advance. I knew the story about his wife being pregnant and their commitment.
"I watched the Triple-A All-Star Game, and Jeremy pitched a scoreless inning. He walked off the mound with an attitude, and maybe it was just me reading into it, but he had that look like, 'You guys made a mistake.' You could just see it.
"When I called him, timing was an issue. I said, 'Do you hear that sound?' He said, 'What sound?' I said, 'That's opportunity knocking. Do you want to take advantage of the chance?' It was very quick and simple. I already knew the character of the guy. We talk about a lot of players. We were putting a puzzle together."
Normally a starter, now Cummings is a reliever for the U.S. He is throwing basically every other day. He threw two scoreless innings in an 11-0, six-inning exhibition victory over China on Thursday, and could be in line to throw some in the opener. His wife is "super ecstatic" for him.
"This was my opportunity finally calling me, like Paul said on the phone," he said. "I was at the right place. Finally."
At the other end of the spectrum is Strasburg. Considered a possible top-three selection in next year's First-Year Player Draft, the San Diego State junior-to-be has traveled extensively with USA Baseball, first as a member of the National Team that finished with a 24-0 summer record, coupled with gold medals at both the FISU World Championships and the Haarlem Baseball Week in the Netherlands. He went straight from Europe to meet the team at processing in San Jose, and hasn't looked back.
"It has been an amazing summer for me," the right-hander said. "It's been a lot of fun, a long summer, but I'm enjoying every minute of it. I didn't really know what my chances were getting on the team, and it's definitely the highlight of my career so far."
Despite the adjustment from playing college ball to playing with the pros, Strasburg has relished the opportunity to participate with athletes at the next level and is using it as a learning experience that will hopefully propel him in his future in baseball.
"The pro game is a lot different than the college game," said Strasburg. "Just playing with these guys is giving me a lot of insight, hopefully, for what is in store at the next level. Like with the pitchers, I just talk with them mainly about stuff outside of baseball, how it is [for them] being out on the road, day-to-day and everything they have to do to get ready to pitch on their given day."
Japan was expected to arrive in Beijing on Sunday, and as of midday Sunday, Chinese-Taipei had not yet arrived.
Throughout the games, there will be special stories everywhere you look, one of them happening late on Saturday night, after the U.S. team left following its intrasquad scrimmage.
Murray Cook, the Major League Baseball groundskeeping guru who is doubling as head of field operations for the baseball competition reported this to MLB.com via email: "After the Canada-Netherlands exhibition game tonight, both teams did the old-school line and shook hands at home plate. Really a cool thing to see. Can you see the Yankees and Red Sox ever doing that?"
No. This is something very different.
Another difference is that it's not a one-shot deal like you see for so many individual competitors in the Games. Those athletes train for years, just for what seems like an ephemeral moment and their shot. The baseball teams will play each other in a round-robin, and then the field of eight will be reduced to four based on wins and losses, using tiebreakers if necessary. The bronze and gold medal games will be on Aug. 23. There will be two rest days along the way, on Aug. 17 and 21.
The fields are wet, but they are Major League-caliber and are ready for competition on Wednesday. The athletes have been breathing it all in as they await the opportunity of a lifetime. One day soon, Barden might be throwing balls over to Albert Pujols at first base for outs -- for now, he is wowed by others.
"In the Village, you are at the food court and you walk around and you see all these great athletes," Barden said. "I just try to sit down with somebody different every day, get to know them and see how their culture is and something you have to take advantage of. It is something you are not going to be able to do again. It's a great honor to be amongst all the athletes and it is fun to learn their ways and learn what they're about."
Mark Newman is enterprise editor of MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.