Absence of Americans raises Nilsson's hopes
Pitch for glory: former New York Yankees pitcher Graeme Lloyd. Photo: Vince Caligiuri
Good fortune has smiled upon the Australian baseball team this year in such an outrageous and Midas-like way that the side that performed so lamentably in Sydney arrived in Athens last week as one of the gold medal favourites.
And the reason for this happy state of affairs is the US team's ignominious exit from the Games, the perennial powerhouse somehow contriving to lose to Mexico in a quarter-final of the Americas qualifying tournament last November.
This has left the way open for the Australians, with major league veterans Graeme Lloyd and Dave Nilsson at the forefront, to march through their seven-match preliminary series and into medal calculations - or so the theory goes.
The straight-talking Nilsson, a catcher with the Anaheim Angels, said the astonishing turn of events in Panama City last year would significantly benefit the Australians. 'Without a doubt it helps our chances,' he said. 'They won the gold medal and they're a great team. It's unfortunate in a lot of ways they're not here but it's great in a lot of other ways. We're here to win a medal.'
Lloyd, the giant left-handed pitcher who won two World Series rings with the New York Yankees, said baseball was such a big business in the US that teams were reluctant to release their players in the middle of the season for three weeks of Olympics duty.
'It's a sticky point with the professionals,' Lloyd said. 'Teams pay them a lot of money and teams want to get to the World Series for their own business. The Olympics is a different situation. From the American point of view, they look at the business side of things. I think it's disappointing, in a way, that the best can't be here. Still, I suppose that only helps us.'
The 24-strong Australian team abounds with players of international experience. Almost all play major league baseball in North America, while Jeff Williams, a left-handed pitcher from the ACT, struts his stuff for the Hanshin Tigers in Japan.
The players made a point of getting together in January and February and have been in constant contact since. Eight, including Nilsson, flew in from Phoenix last week as a group. Team spirit was missing during the disastrous Sydney campaign but not this time around.
'We've learnt a lot of lessons from Sydney and we'll be more competitive in a lot of ways,' Nilsson said. 'We've been in the village six days before we start so we can get a lot of teething problems out of the way. And I think that will be reflected in our performance.'
What will spur them on even more in Athens is their insipid seventh-placed finish in Sydney, an effort that still sticks in Nilsson's craw. 'I'd be lying if I said this Olympics wasn't about repairing the damage that was done in the last Olympics. That was a very embarrassing performance from our team,' he said. 'We had the talent to win a gold medal but we just didn't play very well.'
Nilsson said Lloyd loomed as a key player, not just for his pitching, which is back to near its best after shoulder surgery in 2000, but his experience from more than 500 major league appearances. 'His physical capabilities give us a great chance and he can keep us on track emotionally,' Nilsson said.
The Australians open their campaign against Cuba on Sunday, then play Chinese Taipei, Italy, Japan, Greece, Netherlands and Canada before the semi-finals start on August 24.