By Jon Herskovitz | Reuters
Champions the United States will be absent when the first pitch is thrown in the Olympic baseball tournament on Sunday leaving Cuba and Japan as the favorites for gold in Athens.
A shock defeat by Mexico last November kept an U.S. Olympic team shunned by Major League talent, from defending their title, although a rag-tag team of Americans will represent hosts Greece in the eight-team competition.
The home team, who did not have to qualify, are outsiders despite an influx of Greek-American players mostly gathered from the minor leagues of professional baseball in North America and hastily granted citizenship.
Little is certain, however, given the tight Olympic schedule and a pair of powerful pitchers could be the difference between gold and being left out in the cold.
Canada are also in contention despite two of their top players—Colorado Rockies pitcher Jeff Francis and Minnesota Twins first baseman Justin Morneau—being grounded by their Major League employers.
“Our pitching is good and out hitting is good. We still need to see if our hitting will come through,” said coach Ernie Whitt, who also noted the absence of other traditional American powerhouses from the America’s such as the Dominican Republic.
The Cubans are an Olympic fixture, taking gold in 1992 and 1996 and silver in Sydney in 2000, although their roster may be further weakened by defectors from the communist state.
They lost Kendry Morales, a first baseman with long-ball power, in June when he landed in Miami while two years earlier, pitcher Jose Contreras touched off a bidding war between the New York Yankees, who won, and the Boston Red Sox.
Japan has assembled a “Dream Team” of players from its professional league, led by two dominating pitchers in Daisuke Matsuzaka and Koji Uehara who will be throwing to battery mate Kenji Jojima, a power-hitting catcher.
Greece, a country where every schoolboy knows about Homer but is rarely taught to hit one, have put together a team sponsored by the Greek-American owner of the Baltimore Orioles, Peter Angelos.
Greek authorities waived military service rules in order to give many of their passports but suffered a setback when two Greek-American players, as yet unnamed, failed drugs tests.
The other teams in the field are Italy, Australia, Taiwan and the Netherlands. The teams all play each other once and the top four teams then head to playoffs for the medals.