The American men hope to overturn history.
The American women hope to make it.
That’s the bottom line for baseball at the Pan American Games.
Not since 1967 have the U.S. men won baseball gold at the Games, a 48-year-old drought that gnaws at current players. They seemed on the verge of a breakthrough at the 2011 Games after knocking off 10-time defending champion Cuba 12-10 in the semifinals, only to fall to Canada 2-1 in the gold-medal game.
“We’re focused on it big-time,” says 21-year-old Albert Almora Jr., a center fielder on the Class AA Southern League’s Tennessee Smokies. “I feel we have the team to bring the gold back.”
For the women, meanwhile, it’s a whole new ballgame with the debut of their sport at the Games. Until now, the biggest international event has been the Women’s Baseball World Cup, held every two years since its inception in 2004.
“This is historic — the first time women’s baseball has been included in a multi-sport international event,” said Malaika Underwood, an infielder on USA Baseball teams since 2006.
“If someone had told me back in 2006 I’d be playing in the Pan Am Games, it would have seemed a little far-fetched. Playing for USA Baseball is the pinnacle of our sport. We obviously recognize the historic nature and look forward to hopefully bringing home the gold medal.”
Men’s and women’s games will be played at Ajax Pan Am Ballpark from July 10 to July 26 in Ajax, about an hour east of downtown Toronto.
Leading the men’s squad is Almora, the sixth overall pick of the 2012 MLB draft, by the Cubs, and a record seven-time player on various USA Baseball squads.
“Every chance I get, I jump on board,” he said.
A slick fielder, Almora is one of the youngest everyday players in the Southern League. (MLB-affiliated players who weren’t protected on 40-man rosters were eligible for the tournament).
“My defense is always really consistent,” he said. “And I want to have that leader’s mindset.”
Also expected to lead is Casey Kotchman, a first basemen who played 10 seasons in the majors for seven different teams. The easy-going 32-year-old is Team USA’s version of Crash Davis — the fictional character in the film “Bull Durham.”
“I enjoy helping my teammates,” said Kotchman, the Angels’ first-round pick in 2001.
Guiding Team USA is manager is Jim Tracy, the former big-league manager who was the 2009 National League Manager of the Year while with the Colorado Rockies.
“You have to get as quickly acquainted as you can over a short period of time,” Kotchman said. “It’s nice when you have experienced guys running the ship.”
Jonathan Pollard returns as the women’s coach after guiding the 2014 national team to silver medal at the Women’s Baseball World Cup in Miyazaki, Japan — the only Western Hemisphere squad on the podium.
One of his squad’s strongest arms belongs to Sarah Hudek, a 5-foot-10 left-hander who throws an 82 miles per hour fastball. She recently signed a letter-of-intent to play with the Bossier City (La.) Community College’s men’s team.
Hudek is the daughter of former major league pitcher John Hudek, a National League All-Star in 1994 with the Houston Astros. As a 17-year-old in last year’s World Cup, Hudek was 1-1 with a 0.53 ERA in 17 innings.
“Girls like Sara are blazing news trails,” Underwood said. “One of our strengths is our mix of experience and youth. We have a lot of young, fresh legs.”
Canada is expected to be Team USA’s biggest test in the five-team tournament, which also includes Cuba, Venezuela and Puerto Rico. The gold-medal game is scheduled for July 26 on the final day of the Games.
“We have a target on our backs,” Underwood said.
The men’s field includes Nicaragua, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Colombia as well as the U.S., Canada and Cuba. Teams will play each other once in the opening round, with the top four nations advancing to the semifinals and the medal round.
Clay Latimer is a Denver-based writer who covered four Olympic Games, in addition to other sports, over 28 years with the Rocky Mountain News. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.