08/08/08 10:00 AM ET
Farmhands have big Olympic presence
Lawrie, Hessman among 46 players competing in Beijing
By Kevin T. Czerwinski / MLB.com
While the baseball tournament won't garner as much attention as say the basketball tournament or the gymnastics competition, there will be eyes from Durham to Toledo and from Midland to Stockton focused on the diamond in Beijing.
That's because there will be 46 players with Minor League ties on the field helping four countries compete for the gold. So, when Mike Hessman swings the bat or Jeremy Cummings throws a pitch or Stubby Clapp makes a spectacular play, there will be fans from across the country who have a rooting interest that goes much deeper than national pride. There are hometown players from hometown teams representing the United States and Canada as well as the teams from Chinese Taipei and the Netherlands.
The U.S. team sports 23 players who are currently on affiliated Minor League teams while the Canadian squad has 16 players assigned to rosters in the lower leagues. Chinese Taipei has four players while the Dutch team has three players current Minor Leaguers.
There are 21 players on Triple-A rosters (12 Pacific Coast League, nine International League); 14 players in Double-A (eight Eastern League, five Texas League, one Southern League); eight players on Class A Advanced teams (four Carolina League, two California League, two Florida State League); two on Class A rosters (one South Atlantic League and one Midwest League) and one from a Gulf Coast League squad.
Brett Lawrie, Milwaukee's top pick in June's Draft, is also on the Canadian squad after signing with the Brewers on Wednesday. Before joining the Olympic team, Lawrie played for Team Canada in the World Junior Baseball Championships and won a trio of awards. He batted .469 in the tournament to win top hitter honors, hit three home runs to win the homer title and led the tournament with 16 RBIs.
"There is a silver lining to everything," said Jack Zduriencik, the Brewers director of amateur scouting. "The [Olympic] experience for Brett is going to be a great experience. It's a chance to represent your country and you're playing against the best national teams in the world. ... Certainly, we would have liked to have gotten him into pro ball and gotten him some instruction, but I don't think this is a setback in any way, shape or form."
Stephen Strassburg isn't a pro yet, but is on the United States team. The San Diego State hurler is regarded by many as the player who will be chosen with the top pick in next year's Draft.
Philadelphia and Cleveland are the two franchises with the most representation, each sending four of their prospects to Beijing while Colorado and San Francisco each have three players going. Four teams have no representation.
There is experience on the squad and there is youth. There are two 19-year-old stars from Chinese Taipei, outfielder Che-Hsuan Lin (Boston) and infielder Yen-Wen Kuo (Cincinnati), who is playing in the Gulf Coast League. Juxtapose their participation with that of Stubby Clapp, who'll be playing for Team Canada. He has been a staple on the Canadian squad for years but hasn't been active since playing in the independent Northern League in 2006. Clapp, however, has been coaching for Lexington, Houston's affiliate in the Sally League.
You want record setters, there are some of those as well, including Toledo's Hessman, the active career Minor League home run leader and an IL All-Star. Hessman is third in all of Minor League ball with 32 homers this season and has 286 for his career.
Las Vegas' Terry Tiffee, a PCL All-Star last month, is second among all full-season Minor Leaguers with a .375 average. He had been hitting over .400 as late as June 23. Though his average has dipped slightly, he's still hitting .316 since his average stood at .404 six weeks ago.
It should all make for an interesting two weeks in Beijing. And if you're a fan of Minor League Baseball, you'll have plenty of players to watch and keep tabs on. The Olympics are a Major event but there sure are a lot of players playing Minor parts.
Kevin Czerwinski is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.