Baseball is returning to the Olympics for the first time since 2008 this year at the Tokyo games. This year’s tournament will feature several names familiar to Yankees’ fans on four of the six teams that are competing.
Most notable is the US team, which features David Robertson, Todd Frazier, and Tyler Austin. It’s far from just them. Masahiro Tanaka is taking some time away from his NPB team to play for Japan. Former Yankees Melky Cabrera and Raúl Valdés are taking part for the Dominican Republic. Yankee top prospect of yore Manuel Bañuelos is joining Ramiro Peña on team Mexico. Only Israel and South Korea don’t have a player that’s played in the majors with the Yankees.
However, ever since the first official Olympic baseball tournament in 1992, there have been some Yankees that have taken part. In most of those cases, it was future Yankees as opposed to former ones. With baseball back at the Olympics, let’s look back at the prior times Yankees have taken part.
As mentioned, the first baseball event that awarded official Olympic medals happened in Barcelona in ‘92. The US team featured the briefly-tenured reliever Ron Villone, but more importantly, Jason Giambi was on the roster. While he didn’t pick up a lot of hits or mash a bunch of home runs, he did finish with one of the highest OBPs on the US team, with .462, drawing six walks. As a bonus, current third base coach Phil Nevin was also on the US roster, and tied for the team lead in home runs with two. They ended up finishing fourth after losing the bronze medal game to Japan.
The gold that year was won by Cuba, who featured Orlando Hernández. He unfortunately did not have the best of tournaments. He got the start in a group stage game against the US, but lasted just 0.1 inning, allowing five runs, finishing the tournament with a 135.00 ERA.
Four years later in Atlanta, Cuba again won gold, this time with a different future Yankees’ pitcher. José Contreras didn’t struggle as badly as “El Duque,” but he did put up a ERA over six in eight innings.
The US team featured Jeff Weaver, and you’ll never believe this, but they faltered in the later rounds. (This is somewhat harsh on Weaver, as he didn’t allow a run in any of the handful of innings he threw all tournament. I just had to get the joke off.)
The lone time a US team has won gold (so far) came in the 2000 games in Sydney. That team would feature one future Yankee in first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz, who scored a run in the gold medal game. He and the US defeated Cuba for said gold, a team that again featured Contreras. The future Yankee was Cuba’s ace in 2000, but they had used him in the semifinal against Japan, and he was unavailable as they lost to US for the gold.
That year, there was also a pair of former Yankees on the Netherlands’ team. Robert Eenhoorn and Hensley Meulens were part of a Dutch team that just missed out on advancing to the medal round.
In 2004, the US team was somewhat infamously upset in the qualifying tournament, meaning they didn’t go to Athens for that summer’s games. That didn’t mean there weren’t a number of former and future Yankees that took part.
Cuba returned to the gold medal position after beating an upstart Australia team for gold. Said Aussie team had an elder statesmen in the form of two-time World Series reliever Graeme Lloyd.
Beyond them, there was Hiroki Kuroda, who helped Japan to bronze, recording two wins with a 0.00 ERA along the way. A young Chien-Ming Wang picked up a win in two appearances for Chinese Taipei.
Also, host country Greece featured a roster mostly of American-born players with some sort of Greek ancestry. One of them ended up being Clay Bellinger, who had a home run in Greece’s lone win over Italy.
The last Olympic baseball tournament prior to this year was in 2008 and was won by South Korea. A returning US team got bronze and featured the likes of Stephen Strasburg, Jake Arrieta, Dexter Fowler, and future Yankee Jayson Nix. He had a home run in the tournament as the US went 5-2 before defeating Japan for the bronze.
The Tokyo games will actually be Tanaka’s second Olympics as a young version played for Japan in ‘08. He threw seven scoreless innings across a couple games in the tournament, and will try to help his country improve from their fourth place finish this time around.
There are probably some that I missed and several that played in the Yankees’ system, just not in the majors.
Baseball doesn’t attract the biggest names in sport like some other Olympic events, but many notable Yankees have played on that stage over the years.