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Cuba and Japan lead medal contenders



ATHENS, 12 August ? Cuba and Japan descend upon Athens as favourites for the gold medal at the 2004 Games, while a handful of contenders seek to derail the perennial international powerhouses in the Olympic Baseball tournament that runs 15-25 August.


Two-time gold medallist Cuba, which has secured a place on the podium in every Olympic Games since Baseball became an official Olympic sport in 1992, remains the frontrunner, but it is not the gold medal lock it once was.


Defections such as Jose CONTRERAS, to the U.S. Major Leagues, and retirements including three-time Olympian Omar LINARES have thinned the ranks of the Cuban squad. The World Cup champions return eager for retribution after being defeated by the United States in the gold medal game at the Sydney 2000 Games.


They will rely on the arms of Olympic veterans Pedro LAZO IGLESIAS (CUB), the losing pitcher in the Sydney gold medal game, and Norge Luis VERA PERALTA (CUB), plus the bats of three-time Serie Nacional batting champ Osmani URRUTIA RAMIREZ (CUB) and young guns like 20-year-old second baseman Yulieski GOURRIEL CASTILLO (CUB).


How serious are the Cubans? The Big Red Machine has won every major international competition since falling short in Sydney.


Japan also is keen to capture its first gold in a sport where national passions and expectations run high.


Four years ago, the Asian powerhouse took only a handful of its best professional players to Sydney. Not this time.


The Japanese "Dream Team" is full of professional stars, including standouts such as Kintetsu Buffaloes slugger Norihiro NAKAMURA (JPN) and ace righthander Daisuke MATSUZAKA (JPN), both veterans of Japan's 2000 team which was shut out of the medals. Japan captured bronze in the 1992 Games and silver in the 1996 Games but fell to rival South Korea for bronze in Sydney.


Joining MATSUZAKA in the deep Japanese rotation is Daiei southpaw Tsuyoshi WADA (JPN) and Yomiuri Giants righthander Koji UEHARA (JPN). This threesome paced the Japanese pitching staff in the Asian championships earlier this year, holding opponents to one run in 27 innings. The offense will be led by NAKAMURA and big hitting catcher Kenji JOJIMA (JPN), who has more than 30 home runs this season for the Daiei Hawks.


Japan also will be playing for charismatic manager Shigeo NAGASHIMA (JPN) who is recovering from a stroke and did not accompany the team to Athens.


A quartet of evenly matched teams has a shot to land a medal, though gold would be a major surprise.


Chinese Taipei has shut down its professional leagues for two weeks in order to field the best team possible for Athens. That means players such as "home run king" Chia-Shian HSIEH (TPE), Taipei's home run leader from 2000-2002, will be wielding his big bat.


Chinese Taipai has already shown it has a disciplined and talented squad, highlighted by its silver medal at the 1992 Games. Taipei's best recent finish was third in the 2001 World Championships.


Making its Olympic debut, Canada won't let experience get in the way of its medal aspirations. The North Americans feature a mix of Olympic rookies and players from the US professional ranks and will rely on pitching and defense.


US major leaguers Rob DUCEY (CAN) and Paul SPOLJARIC (CAN) bring seasoning to the squad, while second baseman Richard CLAPP (CAN), a one-time player with the US Major League's St. Louis Cardinals, should give a boost defensively up the middle.


DUCEY, 39, is taking time out of his coaching duties with the Harrisburg Senators, an affiliate of the Montreal Expos, to chase his golden dreams. The 33-year-old SPOLJARIC once pitched for the US Major Leagues' Toronto Blue Jays.


A recent blow to Canada's hopes was the decision by the Colorado Rockies not to let go of prized pitching prospect Jeff FRANCIS (CAN). He was expected to start the team's opening Olympic game.


Australia, winner of the 1999 Intercontinental Cup, has former US major league stalwarts in pitcher Graeme LLOYD (AUS) and All-Star catcher David NILSSON (AUS). The Aussies had a disappointing showing as the home team in the last Olympics, finishing in seventh place, but have the talent to find themselves on the medal stand.


Greece has more than 20 North American professional players of Greek heritage, including ex US major Clayton BELINGER (GRE), a former utility player with the New York Yankees, and could make a run at a medal.


The host country has never made the Olympic Games in baseball and is also recovering from a doping scandal that barred two US players, including key pitcher Andrew James BRACK (GRE), from competition. BELINGER, 36, and his teammates will have the home field advantage, but will have to step it up to snag a medal.


The European representatives, the Netherlands and Italy, appear to be long shots for a medal. Italy has a developed professional league and has long been a European power, qualifying for the every Olympic Games since Baseball became a medal sport. The Italians, however, have finished no higher than sixth.


The Netherlands, which has participated in the last two Olympics, handed Cuba its first Olympic loss ever in Sydney, defeating the Cubans 4-2 in the preliminary round before finishing fifth. It also finished fifth at the 1996 Games.




ONS jc/dr/dlf/nl/eg

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Davey JOHNSON believes Dutch team has "medal shot" 11 Aug. 2004



ATHENS, 11 August - Davey JOHNSON (NED), who led the 1986 New York Mets to the World Series Championship in the USA, believes the squad assembled in Athens has a chance to sneak onto the medal stand.


JOHNSON, who is an assistant coach to manager Robert EENHOORN (NED) for the 2004 Olympic Games, said the team is young but has enough players with professional experience - including several from the USA Major Leagues - to challenge for a podium position.


"We have a chance to medal," said JOHNSON.


To do so, the team will rely on pitching and defense, he said. The pitching threesome of Calvin MADURO (NED), Rob CORDEMANS (NED) and lefty Patrick BELJAARDS (NED) will anchor the team. MADURO, who has pitched for the USA Major League's Baltimore Orioles, will likely start in the Olympic opener 15 August against host Greece.


"In this format," said JOHNSON, referring to the round-robin preliminary round, "it's the depth of your pitching staff that gives you the opportunity to get a medal."


"It's a young team, but we have several players who played A and double-A baseball in the US," he added.


The Netherlands, European champions, will also count on the bat of Mexican professional league standout Sharnol ADRIANA (NED) to knock in runs.


The Dutch team's confidence is high, having won a July pre-Olympic event in Haarlem, Netherlands for the first time in 22 years. During the tournament, the Dutch beat Cuba, one of the Olympic gold medal favourites.


The team won two and lost two at a tuneup event in Italy this week, beating Taipei and Italy and losing to Canada and Cuba.


"Canada looks good, Cuba looks good," said JOHNSON. "Japan is bringing a lot of major league stars. They are probably the favourite."


ONS dr/pjg

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Canada wins final pre-Olympic tournament 11 Aug. 2004



ATHENS, 11 August - Canada beat Chinese Taipei 2-1 to finish in first place at a pre-Olympic tournament in Rome on Tuesday 10 August.


The win boosted Canada's exhibition record to 4-0 as the team heads to Athens for the 2004 Olympic Games.


Retired US major league player Rob DUCEY (CAN) had the crucial hit, driving in Danny KLASSEN (CAN) in the bottom of the eighth to put Canada ahead for good.


John OGILTREE (CAN) came on in relief in the eighth inning to pick up the win.


With victories over medal hopefuls Greece and Taipei, and medal favourite Cuba, Canada has established itself as one of the top contenders for a medal.


"I'm happy we won the tournament but this is just a prelude to the Olympic Games," said Canada manager Ernie WHITT (CAN). '


"I'm happy with our pitching, but I still feel we have a lot more offensive potential than what we have shown."


For the tournament, Canada gave up a total of six runs in four games, and allowed more than one run only once.


ONS jc/dr/sad

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Comments from Canada's RADMANOVICH and LAFOREST 12 Aug. 2004



ATHENS, 12 August - Comments from Canada's practice at Olympic Baseball Centre.


Ryan RADMANOVICH (CAN) - rightfielder


On the team's Olympic preparations and first place finish in Italy at a pre-Olympic tournament this week:


"We feel strong and we are ready for the Games. We have confidence from the win in Italy."


On his Olympic debut:


"I feel excited. I think it is a great moment in every athlete's career."


Pierre-Luc LAFOREST (CAN) - catcher


On the team's preparations:


"We are very united. We are working well as a team. We feel like family."


On his Olympic debut:


"So far, so good. I'm looking forward to meeting the other athletes in the Olympic village and experience the Olympic atmosphere."


ONS gg/mp/dr/is

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Two Greek Olympic Baseball athletes tested positive for drugs 09 Aug. 2004


ATHENS, 9 August - The Hellenic Olympic Committee announced today that two athletes of the Greek Olympic Baseball team- Andrew James BRACK and Derek NICHOLSON (reserve player), have tested positive for illegal substances following an analysis of A and B samples.


ONS sk

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