Even though baseball will be no more than a demonstration sport in the 1984 Olympics, the finals at Dodger Stadium (where all games will be played) are already sold out. In fact, with eight doubleheaders between July 31 and Aug. 7, there is a good chance that more than 400,000 spectators, plus millions more on television, will watch the series.
This will be a six-team tournament with squads from Cuba (the heavy favorite) , Nicaragua, Chinese Taipei (Taiwan), South Korea, Italy, and the United States. It is a power-packed lineup since all teams, with the exception of the United States, had to win major international tournaments to qualify for the Olympics under rules set forth by the International Association of Amateur Baseball.
''I'm not sure what our chances are, because unlike all other countries in the tournament, we have never had a national team,'' explained US coach Rod Dedeaux of the University of Southern California. ''We were also hurt this year when 25 of our best college players became ineligible for the '84 Olympics by signing contracts with professional teams. These kids were very important to us and whether we can replace them is something we don't know.
''But we did run 65 baseball tryout camps throughout the United States last summer and we'll be looking at between 80 and 90 of these young men again in mid-June,'' Dedeaux continued. ''Of the six teams in the tournament we'll undoubtedly be the youngest and the most inexperienced in terms of having 25 players who have never worked together before as a unit. But that doesn't mean that we won't necessarily do well.''
The reason Cuba is such a heavy favorite in the Olympics is not merely because of the talent on its national team, but also because of its maturity and experience. Many of its players are 27 and 28 years old and have been teammates for years. If the Olympics were to start tomorrow, Cuba would have no loose ends , no question about who would play where or what its starting pitching rotation would be.
''If you took all the players from the Dominican Republic (a baseball hotbed) , I doubt if you could put together a better team than Cuba already has in uniform,'' Dedeaux said. ''For example, Cuba has a center fielder named Victor Mesa who can run, play defense, hit for average, hit for power, and drive in runs. He's also very aggressive.
''I don't know what the argument was all about, but I saw one game in international competition in which Mesa, after having words with the home plate umpire, led off with a home run. I figured that was the end of the argument and it probably would have been if Mesa hadn't made some kind of gesture as he rounded third base. Well, the umpire threw him out of the game before he crossed home plate, which is something I'd never seen in baseball before!
''Cuba also has a right fielder with the romantic name of Luis Givaldo Cassa-nova and a lot of the same skills as Roberto Clemente. In one game, after making a catch while backed up against the wall, I saw Cassanova make a line-drive throw to third base that was waiting for the runner who had tagged up at second. Cuba also has a fellow at first base named Antonio Munoz with Willie Stargell power. Our records show he's been with the team for 15 years.''
Dedeaux has also done his homework on Nicaragua, South Korea, Chinese Taipei, and Italy.
''Like Cuban players, no player from Nicaragua would ever be allowed to sign a contract with one of the North American professional teams,'' Rod said. ''So its team is experienced and has obviously been together a long time. South Korea won the 1982 World Cup to qualify for the Olympics and probably has the best pitcher in amateur baseball in Dong-Lyeor Sun. In my opinion, Sun could make the Dodgers' bullpen staff right now.
''Having just returned from Chinese Taipei, where I watched them beat Japan on the final day of the Asian Tournament, I can tell you firsthand that they have a first baseman with major league power in Shih-Chiang Chao,'' he added.
''This is a big man - a 220 pounder whom the umpires over there respect so much that they treat him like Ted Williams. I mean if Chao doesn't swing at a pitch, they automatically call it a ball.
''They also have a shortstop named Fu-Lien Wu, who is good enough defensively to play in the big leagues. I wouldn't go so far as to say he could hit big league pitching, but he's only a shade behind the Cardinals' Ozzie Smith in the field.''
Although Dedeaux says he is relying primarily on what other people have told him about Italy, this is another national team that has been together a long time. While nobody can be sure what players will make the US team at this point , there are three names you might want to remember. They are Mark McGwire, a power hitter from the University of Southern California; pitcher Sid Aikens, also from USC; and pitcher John Hoover of Fresno State. Aikens recently shut out Taipei 1-0 during a US goodwill tour against foreign teams.