Los Angeles — Remember when small towns all across the United States had their very own baseball teams and were intensely proud of it? Entire families brought picnic lunches to the ballpark and knew practically all the players on a first-name basis. It was a slice of Americana that, like high-buttoned shoes, the tin lizzie and the nickel phone call, eventually wound up in a time capsule somewhere.
Well, some of that nostalgia, togetherness, and head-held-high feeling is back this year and wearing the uniform of the US Olympic baseball team. You should see these kids! Their smiles have immense face value. They have made the wholesome look as popular as ice cream, and they can all run and throw.
Your first impression is that, more than anything else, they are having a great time. Your second impression is that Disneyland has sprung a leak. Your third impression is that they also know how to play this game and play it hard.
This is a 20-man all-collegiate team that has been reduced from an original tryout figure of 2,000 to its present number by head coach Rod Dedeaux of the University of Southern California. Olympic baseball, which starts its eight-day run as a demonstration sport at the Los Angeles Games at Dodger Stadium on July 31, and whose finals are sold out, is hoping to attain full-fledged status in time for the 1988 Games in Seoul, South Korea.
Despite its ''demonstration sport'' label this time, the Los Angeles competition is being held along regular Olympic lines and is expected to be intense. Preliminary play will be in two divisions - one consisting of the United States, Chinese Taipei, Italy, and the Dominican Republic, and the other comprised of Korea, Japan, Canada, and Nicaragua. The first- and second-place finishers in each division will then play semifinals and finals for gold, silver , and bronze medals, though not official Olympic ones.
When Cuba, one of the teams originally chosen to play in the Olympics, decided to boycott the Games, the United States inherited its favorite's role. But winning this tournament might not be that easy, even though the Americans have been playing close to .800 baseball as they barnstorm their way across the US.
''Experience is extremely important in baseball and basically we're like an expansion team, only with much better players,'' Dedeaux told me.
''Most of our opponents are on national teams from their own countries that have been together for years. They are mature, they are strong, and they know everything there is to know about each other. We think we can beat them, but the one thing we don't want to do is underestimate them.
''For us to win this tournament, I think we have to become a team of interchangeable parts,'' Rod continued. ''For example, we're going to carry three catchers, but at least one of them is also going to have to play the outfield occasionally for us.
''While our strengths are pitching and power, you also have to be able to catch the ball and make the routine plays in the field. So far we have, but it's an area a coach never stops trying to improve. It's imperative that we make the double play every chance we get.''
If Dedeaux is being asked to play the role of a sculptor, the clay he has been given is probably the best around. Fifteen of Team USA's 25 players were first-round selections in June's major league baseball draft.
In fact eight of those first-round picks were pitchers, including Seton Hall's Pap Pacillo, who throws a fastball in the mid-90 m.p.h. range, and North Carolina's Scott Bankhead, who is also quite a strikeout artist.
But the kid who may become a household name after this year's baseball Olympics is 20-year-old first baseman Mark McGwire, who hit 31 homers, drove in 77 runs, and had a .878 slugging percentage with the Southern Cal Trojans in 1984.
McGwire, the biggest player on the team at 6 ft. 5 in. and 220 lbs., was drafted right out of high school by the Montreal Expos, but chose college instead. This year the Oakland A's made him their No. 1 pick, although Mark still has a year left at USC.
When McGwire lined a bullet over the centerfield wall at Boston's Fenway Park during an Olympic exhibition game, Reggie Jackson, who was there on a road trip with the California Angels, told Mark:
''That's a major league dinger, kid, only to enjoy it you ought to take more time getting around the bases.''
Asked to evaluate some of the Olympic exhibition baseball he's seen so far, McGwire told reporters: ''International baseball is different from what we have in the States. In the first place, there are very few left-handed pitchers. Also there are many different kinds of pitching styles and windups. Actually a lot of pitchers come underneath on you, like Kent Tekulve of the Pirates. Team personalities also differ. The South Koreans, for example, are very relaxed. After getting a batter out, they throw the ball around their infield four or five times to celebrate.''
Dedeaux, whose USC teams have won an unprecedented 11 national championships as well as 28 conference titles, has a keen knowledge of baseball and a wonderful personality for a team this young.
Like Tommy Lasorda of the Dodgers, everything is upbeat with Rod. Every kid gets a large helping of praise, and fundamentals are treated with all the importance of a presidential campaign.''