By Jack Williams
A quickie quiz: What edition of USA Baseball’s college national team posted the best winning percentage of all time?
If you answered the 1984 edition, featuring Will Clark, Mark McGwire, Barry Larkin and B.J. Surhoff, that’s strike one. If you said the 1992 team highlighting Georgia Tech stars Nomar Garciaparra and Jason Varitek, strike two.
Pick the team that represented the United States this past summer, a team that highlighted the play of Georgia Tech’s present stars, Mark Teixeira and Richard Lewis-and brother, you hit a home run.
That team, coached by Southern Cal’s Mike Gillespie, went 27-3-1 for a winning percentage of .900, won crucial series with international powers Cuba and Japan and beat two teams headed for the Olympic Games from The Netherlands and Italy. The 2000 edition bested the .881 percentage posted by the 1984 team, which finished 37-5-1.
This current collegiate national team, however, will not get the opportunity to represent the United States at the Olympic Games as it did in 1992 and 1996. Under new U.S. Olympic Committee guidelines, the American team now is composed entirely of players from minor league professional teams.
“Since we knew we could not play in the Olympics, posting the best winning percentage became our top goal this summer,” said Teixeira, the sensational third baseman who was selected by Baseball America as the United States’ Summer Baseball Player of the Year.
The Tech junior from Severna Park, Md., led the American team in practically every category known in baseball, except stolen towels. He topped the Team USA roster in batting average (.385), hits (45), runs batted in (23), home runs (5, a tie) and total bases (70). He finished the competition with a 22-game hitting streak and twice won extra inning games with walk-off home runs.
Lewis, a Yellow Jacket junior from, Marietta, Ga., posted a batting average of .323 with 31 hits and 10 RBIs. He played second base, his usual spot at Tech, and all three outfield positions for the national team and, in the process, made a big name for himself in international competition.
“Richard is a player who just gets better all the time,” Teixeira said. “He really played well throughout the summer. It was great having him on the trip, someone from back home to be with.”
Teixeira and Lewis figure to help make Tech one of the top teams in college baseball next spring. The Jackets return almost every player from the team that was ranked No. 1 in national polls last spring heading into the NCAA Tournament’s Super Regionals.
In that round, Southern Cal, coached by Gillespie, came to Atlanta and beat the Jackets in two straight games. Strange then that Teixeira and Lewis would wind up playing for the Southern Cal coach all summer and competing side-by-side with the Trojans’ star pitcher, Mark Prior, who handcuffed the Jackets in the Regional.
“Coach Gillespie was really great,” Lewis said. “He’s very laid back which is the way I think a coach should be when he has a team with so much talent. I liked playing for him.”
Teixeira seconded the motion and said good things about Prior, who emerged as one of Team USA’s top pitchers. “Mark’s a really outstanding pitcher,” Teixeira said. “He’s going to have a great career in baseball.”
Teixeira and Lewis are keenly disappointed the collegiate nationals are not headed for Australia and the Olympic Games. “Actually, when they called me about this national team, I thought the team would be going to the Olympics,” Lewis said. “I didn’t realize the system had changed.”
Teixeira was quick to note, however, that the committee has an obligation to put the best possible team on the field in the Olympics. “We are disappointed,” he said, “but we wish the USA team the very best.”
Both Teixeira and Lewis feel their national team could have made a strong run at a gold medal. “We beat two Olympic teams, and I feel we would have been very competitive,” Teixeira said. “Who knows what might have happened?”
Some of the Team USA’s brightest stars besides Teixeira, Lewis and Prior were a super-fielding shortstop Bobby Crosby (.294 with five home runs) from Long Beach State; pitcher Dewon Brazelton (6-0) of Middle Tennesseee State; second baseman-outfielder Chris Burke (.376) of Tennessee; pitcher Len DiNardo (5-0) of Stetson; and first baseman-designated hitter Jake Gautreau (.348) of Tulane.
The National Team finished the summer competition by sweeping the Honkbal Baseball Week Tournament in Haarlem, The Netherlands. Team USA clinched the title by belting Cuba twice in a period of four days.
“Even though this was not the team that will represent Cuba in the Olympics, we had a special feeling playing them,” Teixeira said. “You know they want to put the best team possible out there going against the United States.”
In the championship game in which the USA beat Cuba, 8-5, Teixeira had a home run and went three-for-four. Lewis hit a key double.
“The stands were packed every night in The Netherlands,” Lewis said. “When we weren’t playing the Dutch team, the fans cheered for us. But I’m not sure how much the fans were into baseball. It was really just a huge party in the stands.”
The Tech stars agree that Japan fielded the best team they faced all summer. “We beat the Japanese three out of five in games in Hawaii and in Arizona,” Teixeira said. “But that was really a talented team. Their pitching was incredible. I think the pitchers from Japan were even better than many of the top college pitchers you see in this country.”
Teixeira and Lewis said they formed many friendships with the other American players and came away from the two-month experience as better players. “I learned to play the game under different conditions,” Teixeira said. “We would fly all day to reach a game site and then play that same night. We played teams from other countries. Many factors helped make it a good experience for me.”
Lewis said, “I got a chance to see the country’s best college players up close and I learned what things I need to improve to be a better player.”
In international competition, only wooden bats are used. That perhaps was the most pleasing thing of all to the two Yellow Jacket stars.
“That’s real baseball-when you use wooden bats,” Teixeira said. “It’s the third summer in a row I have played with wooden bats. I like them much better than aluminum.”
Lewis said, “Instead of 13-10 and 17-12 games, you get low-scoring games when you use wooden bats. Good defense becomes so much more important. I like wooden bats a lot.”
Teixeira and Lewis now turn their attention to another season at Georgia Tech. They can only hope the Jackets are as successful as the USA National Team that staked its claim as the best of all time.