Baseball debuted in the Olympics at the 1904 Games in St. Louis, appropriately enough. It was played over the years as an exhibition, one time even pitting two American teams against each other at the 1936 Games in Berlin. It disappeared after the ‘64 Games in Tokyo, but was revived for the Los Angeles Games in 1984, this time as a full-fledged tournament with eight nations, although it was still an exhibition sport, and not a full-fledged medal sport.
Amateur status was still required of Olympic athletes in those days, so the USA Baseball team was filled with the top college players across the nation, such as Michigan’s Barry Larkin, USC’s Mark McGwire, and Mississippi State’s Will Clark. University of North Carolina Tarheel pitcher Scott Bankhead, who had been selected in the first round by the Kansas City Royals back in June, helped anchor the rotation. In the outfield were future Royals bench players Shane Mack and Chris Gwynn.
The American outscored their first four opponents 35-4 to advance to the championship. A crowd of over 55,000 cheered on the Americans at Dodger Stadium as they hosted Japan. Mack hit a solo home run in the first to put USA on top, but a three-run home run by Kasumi Hirosawa would give Japan the lead for good in a 6-3 win.
At the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, baseball was still a "demonstration sport", on track to become a medal sport. The Canadians had a solid team, including a young second baseman named Matt Stairs, who would one day swat home runs for the Royals. The American team was headlined by Jim Abbott, a one-handed pitcher from the University of Michigan who inspired throngs of fans. Robin Ventura, named the top collegiate player of the year at Oklahoma State, anchored the lineup, along with University of Tampa first baseman Tino Martinez and University of Missouri shortstop Dave Silverstri. Speedy Fresno State outfielder Tom Goodwin, who would steal 150 bases for the Royals over three seasons would drive in a run in the championship game against Japan* to earn a Gold Medal.
*-I was there!
Baseball was finally a medal sport at the 1992 Games in Barcelona. The Americans and Cubans were the only teams with top-level talent, but the Americans lost to Cuba in the semis, then were drilled by Japan in the Bronze Medal Game. Team USA featured a second baseman from a tiny Division III school in Virginia named Michael Tucker, who would be selected in the first round by the Royals that year. Jason Giambi, Nomar Garciaparra, and Wichita State star Darren Dreifort were among the other players who would return from Spain empty-handed.
The Americans would be the host nation again in Atlanta in 1996 with Jacque Jones, Mark Kotsay, and Travis Lee hoping to lead USA back to Gold. Stanford catcher A.J. Hinch, who the Royals would later acquire from the Athletics in the Johnny Damon deal, would catch for Team USA. The Americans would destroy the early competition, but in the semi-final game they were routed by the Japanese 11-2, and had to defeat Nicaragua to win the Bronze Medal.
Wood bats were required for the 2000 games in Sydney, and professional players were allowed to compete although Major League teams were not going to allow their talent to take a month off for the Games, and they were reluctant to allow any decent prospects to represent Team USA. The result was an odd roster of has-beens and never-weres that included former Royals catcher Pat Borders and top Royals pitching prospect Chris George. Doug Mientkiewicz, a future Royals first baseman, was perhaps the most well-known player at the time, having been a regular the previous season, but he had fallen out of favor with the Twins that season. Brent Abernathy and Travis Dawkins were infielders who would also briefly spend time with the Royals.
The American team snuck past South Korea in the semifinals 3-2, and were a big underdog to the professional-level Cuban national team that included future big leaguer Jose Contreras. Future Brewers pitcher Ben Sheets would toss a three-hit shutout to help USA defeat the Cubans 4-0 for the Gold.
The 2004 Games in Athens marked the demise of Olympic baseball. Three of the eight slots were reserved for European teams, leaving just two for all teams in North, Central, and South America. The Americas only had a single-elimination tournament, and when Team USA was upset 1-0 by Mexico (who would be upset by Canada), they were shut out of the Summer Olympics. With no American team, no Dominican team, and no South Korean team, interest in Olympic baseball declined.
By 2004, the game of baseball had spread to the point where many nations had big league talent sprinkled on their rosters. Former Royals relievers Graeme Lloyd (Australia) and Paul Spoljaric (Canada) would participate, as well as current Royals reliever Chien Ming Wang (Chinese Taipei). Future Royals George Kottaras and Mike Tonis would represent the host nation, Greece. The Cubans, with future White Sox shortstop Alexei Ramirez, would take Gold.
The 2008 American Olympic team in Beijing would feature one collegiate star, Stephen Strasburg of San Diego State, who would become the first overall pick of the 2009 draft. Trevor Cahill, Brett Anderson, and Jake Arrieta would also make up the rotation, with former Royals infielder Jayson Nix on the roster. The Americans would get drilled by Cuba in the semifinal game before beating Nori Aoki and Team Japan to take Bronze.
Baseball would be removed as an Olympic sport for the 2012 and 2016 Games, but has been recently added as a sport to return in 2020 for Tokyo. Will any future Royals compete for Olympic Gold? Only time will tell.