All eyes turn to baseball in Beijing
Team USA begins tournament with matchup against Korea
BEIJING -- In this shiny and soaring capital city of China, most everyone is transfixed on the Summer Olympics. Every single television screen seems to be surrounded by waiters and busboys and executives who are watching badminton or volleyball or rowing or swimming, frantically urging on the host country in red and yellow regalia. Taxi drivers turn on their meters and then they turn on the radio, because there is usually live action to follow somewhere nearby.
The most striking thing about Beijing right now is the absolute and total takeover of attention on the Games and the making of new local legend where powerful dynasties once ruled. It is the first Olympiad allowed unto this massive nation, and its minions are riveted by the opportunity, engulfed in what is shaping up as the uber-competition of them all -- a heavyweight fight with the United States for most overall medals.
Here is where baseball comes in. Five days after the Opening Ceremony, one for every Olympic ring, the attention finally shifts to a pair of curiously beautiful diamonds at the Wukesong Sports Complex -- an air-rifle straight shot from Forbidden City along Fuxingmen Wai Dajie to the outer Western perimeter. The mighty U.S., a collection of 24 Major League prospects, plays its first game against Korea on Wednesday at 6 p.m. local time (6 a.m. ET), one of four openers on this day, and maybe a billion people will have their indoctrination into what America calls its "national pastime."
China will get into it, the way it is getting into every detail of everything about these Games. Children will ask why the man went to sit down after swinging three times and will wonder what it feels like to meet a ball with a wood bat. Their own team here -- ironically Made In The USA and managed by former Dodgers infielder and Major League skipper Jim Lefebvre -- opens against Canada at 11:30. The other two openers are Chinese Taipei vs. Netherlands at 10:30 and -- in a rematch of the 2006 World Baseball Classic final -- Cuba vs. Japan at 7 p.m.
The U.S. players are by all accounts as ready as a team could possibly be, and you could see it in their body language as they anxiously stood along the railing waiting for Korea to take its last licks before assuming Field 3 for their final workout on Tuesday. They are bouncing. After that practice was over, manager Davey Johnson, who won rings as a player with the 1966 and '70 Orioles and as a manager with the '86 Mets, assembled his players in the right-field grass, and here is what he told them:
"We've been here for a week, we've worked out, we've experienced the great Opening Ceremony. We're ready to start playing."
It is time to defend the sport of baseball, which disappears from the Olympic menu for 2012 in London, along with softball. It is time to represent a country before going back to that Major League organization almost all of them temporarily left behind. It is time to open the competition on the Wukesong baseball fields of China.
It is time to go for the gold.
Expect to see former Braves left-hander Jung Bong as the starting pitcher for Korea. Expect to see Brandon Knight (Mets) or Trevor Cahill (A's) as the starting pitcher for the U.S. The technical committee for this competition passed a new rule on Tuesday, requiring every club to divulge its starting lineup at least 1 1/2 hours before the first pitch. Secrecy generally prevails in these international competitions, as some clubs historically would put a lefty and a righty in the same bullpen for warmups just to make sure the opposing manager did not know which one would start until the last minute.
So only at about 4:30 p.m. will the "probable pitchers" be known for this game, and the same pattern will apply thereafter. In Korea's case, although not formalized, there is little mystery because Bong, who has been pitching for the LG Twins of Seoul in the Korea Baseball Organization, was surrounded by Korean journalists next to the U.S. workout, and he said: "I am confident I can win the game. I have experience pitching against U.S. hitters and I believe I can do well against them."
The U.S. is 5-0 against Korea in Olympic history, and based on the 2006 World Baseball Classic, there is reason to think the competition is even better now. The last time the two nations matched up came at Sydney in 2000, a dramatic 3-2 U.S. victory in the semifinals on a one-out solo home run from Doug Mientkiewicz in the bottom of the ninth inning that lifted the U.S. into the gold medal game vs. Cuba. It was America's only gold in four Olympiads; Cuba won the other three.
Weather permitting -- and the day dawned foggy with isolated thunderstorms forecast through the afternoon and into the evening -- this game begins a string of four consecutive game days for each of the eight clubs. Following the opener, the U.S. will play three consecutive morning games against the Netherlands, Cuba and Canada. The U.S. will then have one rest day before concluding opening-round competition playing three night games in a row against China, Chinese Taipei and Japan.
"You can really feel the anticipation," said outfielder John Gall, on loan from the Marlins' Triple-A Albuquerque affiliate. "We've had so many activities since we got here, it finally seems like it has calmed down and we got some work in today. We actually ran into Korea here before we came out and I think that got the blood flowing, as far as, that is who we open with tomorrow. We're excited.
"We're here for baseball. It's exciting in the [Olympic] Village right now, and you see the other U.S. athletes come in, and they have been playing. The U.S. has had a lot of success already, and it will be fun to get started tomorrow."
Since the U.S. roster was announced and the players were able to gather, the team has played six exhibitions, winning the last five. There were four in a row against Canada back in North Carolina before leaving for Beijing, and then two here against China. The U.S. was not able to play as many exhibitions as it would have liked as teams gradually filtered in here, and final scores weren't nearly as meaningful as the opportunity for Johnson and his coaching staff to get players into the required rhythm.
Only once the tournament is under way will that really happen. Pitching coach Marcel Lachemann is ready for it to begin.
"Obviously, you'd like a little more time," he said. "We've played in two games here and would have liked more games. The second game, there was a lot of focus on the president attending. Fortunately, we had two good days in North Carolina. Cary, [site of the Aug. 1 game against Canada], helped us. Since we left there, we've had guys on a schedule and we've simulated some bullpens but we just need a rhythm.
"It's a group that seems to be coming together real quick," he said. "It will be quite an assignment for them -- a lot more than most people think. A lot of people think it's a slam-dunk. We played Netherlands last year in the World Cup, [which the U.S. won], and it was 1-0 going into the bottom of the eighth. In '99, the first year they used pro players, the qualifiers were at the Pan Am Games in Winnipeg. We beat Mexico in the semis. We killed Mexico, 2-1, in 10 innings. If we lost that, we wouldn't have qualified for the Olympics, where we won our gold medal in 2000."
Lachemann noted that the roster of that qualifier included Mark Mulder, Brad Penny, Dan Wheeler, John Patterson and Adam Kennedy.
"Korea is going to be good, playing overall fundamental baseball," Lachemann said. "They always do. They put the ball in play, don't strike out a lot. They make you beat them. They have guys who work the count, and guys who go up there swinging at the first pitch. They'll be good. Our guys know that. This is a chance to represent your country. The game is global, the competition is much better.
"If you don't play your 'A' game, you could walk out of here 1-6 in a heartbeat."
The top four teams will move on to the semifinals Aug. 22, after each team has played seven games, one against each other on either of the two Wukesong fields. Head-to-head will determine any tiebreaker, and run differential would be the second criteria if a three-way tiebreaker is needed. The two semifinal losers will play Aug. 23 for the bronze medal, and that day, the two winners will play to determine who wins the last baseball gold medal in the known Olympic future.
The average person in Beijing will be watching. They are watching everything, they are talking about everything. They have their own CCTV around-the-clock Olympics show similar to the one Americans are accustomed to watching on NBC, and in some ways it is even more entertaining because they have singers, kind of a blend of sports highlights, interviews with medalists, analysis and 1970s-era variety show. It is as if they never stopped the Opening Ceremony here -- the show goes on.
Now they will see some baseball. Let the ball games begin.
Mark Newman is enterprise editor of MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.