CUBA'S AGING veterans easily defeated manager Tommy Lasorda's patchwork Team USA in pool play at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.
"We're in the medal round with only one loss," Tommy said with a shrug. "I'm looking forward to playing them again for the gold and beating them."
I had first covered the nucleus of the Cuban dynasty at the 1987 Pan Am Games in Indianapolis. The great Omar Linares was a teenager. I covered them again in Havana 4 years later. The Cuban national team was near its peak. Linares, the best third baseman I have seen not named Mike Schmidt, was a 23-year-old superstar. And a devout Fidelista. He wasn't going to defect.
Nine years later, Linares was a veteran, as was longtime cleanup hitter Orestes Kindelan. The move to wood bats had stolen a lot of the Cuban thunder. They had to cope with the inside fastball like everybody else and their bats were inferior. Smuggling decent America wood into Cuba had become a cottage industry.
So, on Sept. 27, 2000, in a makeshift ballpark on the edge of the vast Olympic complex, Lasorda's prediction came true. A young righthander from the Milwaukee farm system named Ben Sheets shut out the curiously detached Cuban veterans, who failed to win an international tournament for the first time since Castro decided he would rule the amateur baseball world.
Earlier in the Olympic tournament, Lasorda told me, "Ben Sheets is going to be a big-league pitcher, but the kid with the best arm on the team is this Roy Oswalt kid. He won't pitch much because he lacks experience. But he's a tough little [bleep] with big-time velocity. He can really rush it up."
Most of the players from that unique gold-medal collection of Triple A veterans and Double A prospects made it to the majors. A handful are still in the Show.
Sheets and Oswalt appear to be on the front burner as Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro tries to cook up a trade-deadline stew, tries to turn this pumpkin of a team back into a gleaming carriage to lead a World Series parade.
There are other names being regurgitated by the tireless rumor mill, of course. All are well-compensated starters who are having less-than-stellar seasons for teams whose poor records have turned them into sellers with a need to jettison payroll.
Teams dumping salary don't want to take salary on, or to rent an impending free agent looking to score a megadeal.
So if Amaro has a chance to acquire an Oswalt, Sheets, Dan Haren or any of the usual suspects whose names will be run up the flagpole, the deal probably will not include Jayson Werth. For one thing, the rightfielder who appears to be going through a hitter's version of Steve Blass Disease has lost more luster than BP stock. Not only is Werth no longer a must-have for a team hanging a "For Sale" sign on its clubhouse, he doesn't appear, right now, to be the kind of ballplayer a contending club can count on as a difference maker. Scouts understand swings. They can all send their shorthand reports to their GMs, but what club has time with the fourth turn in sight to correct a swing that looks like it belongs in a celebrity softball game?
On the other hand, it is the same swing that mystified everybody during spring training, including Charlie Manuel and Milt Thompson. The most frequent greeting I heard in Clearwater was, "What the hell is wrong with Werth?" But Jayson came out of the chute firing. He was smoking doubles at a record clip, launching long homers, swinging aggressively. Then he reverted to the March mixup. The guy piled up such impressive numbers when he was white-hot, they suggest he isn't having that bad a season. Those figures lie.
But even when you're helping a trading partner lower his payroll, you've got to give up some players. They just don't have to be plucked from your nucleus.
Kyle Kendrick probably can be had. He's had enough bright moments in his four seasons to be attractive as an ongoing project. Hey, how many 25-year-old righthanders are out there with a 29-18 record in the big leagues? Not to mention his $480,000 salary. Kendrick was a seventh-round pick in the 2003 draft. That was on Ed Wade's watch. And the former Phils GM, who is fighting for his job in Houston with a lousy team in free fall, has been plucking former Phils like ripe fruit.
All-Star Michael Bourn . . . Pedro Feliz . . . Jason Michaels . . . Brett Myers . . .
And with all of the speculation concerning Oswalt, who earns $15 million this year, $16 million in 2011 with a $16 million club option for 2012, what if, what if . . .
What if Amaro has a chance to get back Brett Myers? He's 7-6 with a 3.35 ERA. He has pitched 129 innings. He loved it here. And the contract, look at the contract. Brett wound up with a tattered hat in his hand and Wade signed him for $3.1 million. Which means Ruben can get him for about a prorated $1.35 million.
So, Eddie, how about Myers for Kendrick and you can take two from a list of second-line minor leaguers? We'll give you Matthew Rizzotti, a 6-5, 265-pound late-bloomer the Phils drafted out of Manhattan College. He throws and bats left and has been tearing up the Eastern League. First base is all he does and Lance Berkman's shelf life is about to expire.
That's a deal that actually makes sense for the short term, which is what the SWAT-team urgency is all about. And Ruben can toss in a pitcher from the B.J. Rosenberg, Drew Naylor level. And maybe get back a minor leaguer or two from the Astros.
Sheets, Oswalt and Haren are any-port-in-storm guys. Oswalt and Haren each are owed more than $10 million next year, and Sheets is making that much this season on a 1-year deal.
Brett Myers, age 29, looks like a helluvan alternative.