Right now in Rio de Janiero, Brazil, the 2016 Summer Olympics are in full swing and that’s all well and good. (Besides, ya know, all of the terrible things going on away from the pool/field/court/etc.) But some of the most noteworthy news to come out of the Olympics recently is that baseball will make a return to the games in Tokyo for 2020.
This reemergence of baseball won’t affect the big leagues too much, if at all. So, don’t expect to see Manny Machado pushing the United States (or Domincan Republic) towards the gold, or Jonathan Schoop carrying his native Curacao to glory. It won’t happen. But, you could see notable Orioles minor leaguers make appearances if they are good enough. It wouldn’t be the first time the Birds sent some talent to compete for the medals.
Baseball in the Olympics
The history of baseball in the Olympics is long and complicated. The simple version: it was a medal sport for the first time in 1992 and only lasted until 2008. Since then, it has been on the outside looking in.
The medal count: three golds and two silvers for Cuba, one gold and two bronze for the United States, one gold and one bronze for South Korea, one silver and two bronze for Japan and then one silver apiece for Australia and Chinese Taipei
Onto the Orioles that have featured...
1992: coming up short
The O’s had a trio of future players make appearances for the United States team, which finished in fourth place at baseball’s inaugural appearance as a medal sport in Barcelona.
RHP Rick Helling: the starter saved his worst major league season for the O’s. In 2003 as a 32-year-old he made 24 starts, finishing with a 7-8 record and a 5.71 ERA. At the Olympics he stunk too, going 0-1 with an 8.00 ERA, 12 hits, one walk and seven strikeouts over two starts and nine innings.
C Charles Johnson: the backstop had himself a nice little Olympics, going 5-for-17 at the plate with a double, one RBI, five walks and four strikeouts. Over two seasons with the Birds (1999-2000) he slashed .268/.349/.476, which was actually the best he hit in his big league career. Personally, I will remember the days when he caught Jason Johnson, forming a Johnson & Johnson battery.
OF Jeffrey Hammonds: it was pretty easy to see at the Olympics why the Orioles expected Hammonds to be the next big thing. In Spain, he led the US with a .432 batting average and eight RBI. He also smashed a home run, double and two triples. As a big leaguer he was solid with the O’s over parts of six seasons, .264/.322/.446, 51 home runs, 3.8 WAR, but never became the superstar they hoped for.
1996: going solo
From what I can tell, just one future Oriole participated at the ‘96 games in Atlanta. The games for this competition were played at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, which was in the midst of it’s final season of use by the Braves.
RHP Kris Benson: the former first overall pick spent most of his career in Pittsburgh. He moved to Baltimore on January 22, 2006 in a somewhat big trade at the time that sent pitchers Jorge Julio and John Maine to the Mets. He would go on to make 30 starts for the O’s and throw 183.0 innings. In that time he had an 11-12 record, 4.82 ERA and 94 ERA+. Meh. For the bronze medal US team he wasn’t any better: three starts, 2-1, 5.82 ERA, 17 innings, 5 walks, 17 strikeouts.
2000: a land down under
RHP Grant Balfour: this guy doesn’t count because he was never an Oriole (luckily!), but this post needed some international flavor. Balfour represented the host nation Australia at the Sydney Games. I can’t find any stats for the Aussies that year, but just imagine 23-year-old Balfour screaming at opponents. The O’s nearly signed the righty to be their closer prior to the 2014 season, but cited a problem with the physical as reason to halt the deal. Good thing! He pitched in 65 games that season to a 4.91 ERA and followed that with just six games in 2015 with a 6.23 ERA.
OF/1B Mike Kinkade: at the time of the Games, he was 27 years old and toiling away in the O’s minor league system with Bowie and Rochester. In Sydney, he played in all nine games, batting .207 with a double, three RBI, three walks and seven strikeouts. Kinkade went on to appear in 64 games for the Birds, slashing .281/.351/.389 with four home runs and 17 RBI. His biggest claim to fame: He was a part of the haul the O’s got for Mike Bordick from the Mets, including team legend Melvin Mora.
RHP Kurt Ainsworth: this guy! Oh, this guy was going to be the next Cy Young winner for the O’s. He came over from the Giants on trade deadline day in 2003. It was a 3-for-1 deal where Baltimore picked up Ainsworth, Damian Moss and Ryan Hannaman and San Fran got the stud himself Sidney Ponson. It felt like a good deal, Ainsworth was a top 100 prospect and did really well at the ‘00 Games: 2-0, 1.54 ERA, 11.2 innings, 2 walks , six strikeouts. But he could never stay healthy, making just 10 appearances for the O’s and pitching to a 9.82 ERA.
LHP Rick Krivda: I had to look him up. He was drafted by the O’s in 1991 and spent parts of the 1995, ‘96 and ‘97 team in Baltimore. In that time he made 34 starts and 11 relief appearances to the tune of a 9-14 record, 5.13 ERA and 1.5 WAR. He showed up once for the Olympic team: a two-inning start where he gave up four runs on five hits, one walk and a strikeout.
2004: Summer Nights
Judging by the internet, it’s tough to tell baseball was even at these Athens Games. The official Olympics site ignores it and the US Baseball site has no statistics. Rats!
UTL Clay Bellinger: he spent the 1996 season in the O’s organization with Triple-A Rochester, having the best season of his career: .301/.348/.490 with 15 homers and 78 RBI. Alas, he became a free agent at the end of the year and went on to play 182 games for the Yankees and Angles, amassing a -0.2 WAR in the bigs.
OF Cory Harris: don’t worry, I have no clue who he is either. According to Baseball Reference, during the 2003 and 2004 seasons he spent some time with the Frederick Keys and Delmarva Shorebirds, but he never made it past high-A ball.
LHP Sean Spencer: yeah, another unfamiliar name to me. The O’s signed him in the middle of the 2003 season and he played everywhere from short-season Aberdeen up to Triple-A Ottawa, but never made it to the bigs with the Birds. He did, however, pitch in 10 games for the Mariners and Expos from 1999-2000.
OF Nick Markakis: although Markakis is an American citizen, he participated at the ‘04 Games for host nation Greece as he has Greek heritage. His team ended up finishing 1-6, seventh place out of eight teams (Italy was eighth). He was joined on the team by Harris, Spencer and Bellinger. The Greek God of Swing also appeared as a pitcher in two games.
RHP Koji Uehara: prior to bringing his sideburns stateside in 2009, Koji was also really good in his native Japan. He pitched in two games for the bronze medal winners in ‘04 and also traveled with the team to Beijing four years later. Of course, we know how good he was with the Orioles and was also the trade chip used to land big bopper Chris Davis and former reliever Tommy Hunter.
LHP Tsuyoshi Wada: just as Uehara did, Wada also featured in the ‘08 Games for Japan. Although he is now back in his home country playing baseball, he originally came to the United States in 2011 and signed with the O’s. Over the next two years, he had injury after injury and never made it to Baltimore. In 2014, he started for the Cubs against the Birds and allowed just one hit over 6.1 innings.
2008: it now seems so long ago
OF Adam Stern: he was the Orioles lone Canadian representative at the Beijing Games. The Canucks went on to finish sixth at the competition and Stern only played in two games for the Orioles as a defensive replacement in April 2007.
Manager Davey Johnson: after serving as an assistant coach for the Netherlands in 2004, Johnson took charge of the United States team in 2008 and led them to a bronze medal. In Baltimore, he was an all-star and gold glove second baseman for some really good teams in the late 60s and early 70s and also managed the team to two playoff appearances in 1996 and ‘97.
LHP Brian Duensing: the lefty has made seven appearances for the 2016 Orioles and has been pretty bad; 5.40 ERA, and is now injured. But with the 2008 US Team he was great, tossing 7.2 innings and allowing just three hits and one run as a reliever.
RHP Jake Arrieta: he is the reigning Cy Young Award winner in the National League and has continued to be pretty darn dominant for the Chicago Cubs. This came after his up and down tenure with the Orioles. He made just one start at the Olympics, a 9-1 win over China.
INF Terry Tiffee: the switch-hitting Tiffee never made it to the bigs with the O’s. He spent the 2007 season with Norfolk, hitting .272/.307/.394 with 10 homers and 55 RBI. But he did get into 97 games across four seasons with the Twins and Dodgers. The infielder had a nice showing at the Olympics, picking up six doubles in the nine-game event and slashed .324/.341/.486.
C Taylor Teagarden: he was always a “defense-first” option behind the plate and that showed in Beijing, where he caught five games but could only muster a .188/.388/.313 batting line. But he did always have a knack for coming up clutch. His double against Japan sealed the bronze medal for the United States. Between 2012 and 2013, Teagarden played in just 45 games for the O’s as Matt Wieters’ backup but I remember two walk-off hits during his time in the Charm City.
2020 and beyond
Like I said before, major leaguers won’t be a part of the equation in Tokyo, but that doesn’t mean the Orioles would be unaffected. If the Games had taken place this year, it wouldn’t be difficult to imagine someone like Chance Sisco, Trey Mancini or Cody Sedlock suiting up for the U.S. Perhaps Jomar Reyes would get the nod for the Dominican Republic.
Of course, the hope is that those four will all be ready for the majors by the time the next Olympics rolls around, so they will not be a factor either. In all likelihood, we don’t know the names of the players that will make up the next U.S. Olympic team. They are probably juniors in high school right now.
Attendance should be great in Tokyo. The Japanese people love their baseball, but it would be tough to convince MLB to suspend their season for a month and send their multi-million dollar investments to the other side of the world to compete for a medal that has no affect on their personal bottom line.
However, if baseball can survive 2020, then we may be in for a treat come 2024. That is the year Los Angeles is vying for host duties. Getting the games on US soil would make it easy for the MLB to lend some talent. Heck, if the Americans can do something special it may generate interest in the baseball and that all sounds like dollar signs to me for MLB.
So, did I miss any former O’s who played in the Olympics? Where there Birds who were good enough in other sports to participate in the Olympics? Let me know in the comments! Thanks for reading!