An Alternate History: The 1996 Baseball Olympic Dream Team

Way back in 2012, I did a post discussing what a baseball dream team for Team USA would have looked like in an alternate world where MLB stars came to the Olympics when NBA stars did: the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona. And while my formatting and grammar wasn’t great (it was the first year of the blog), I still think it was a neat exercise.

So now, with the 2020 (err… 2021) games in full-swing in Tokyo, I got to wondering: What would the dream team have been in 1996? Let’s move forward that clock and assume that Team USA’s Olympic Baseball Team won gold in 1992, although not nearly in such a dominant manner as the basketball team did since international baseball talent in 1992 was better than international basketball talent in 1992. What does the team look like in 1996 in Atlanta?

(Go below the jump for more.)

Now, it should be noted that the 1996 basketball team was, while still one of the most elite groupings of players in history, not nearly as famous or as good as the original, although they still won the tournament with ease. Only five members of the original team came back, Team USA actually was challenged (at least in the first half) in some games, and the cultural impact of that team ultimately was nothing compared to that of the ’92 team. To somewhat reflect that, I have a rule that only 10 players from the 1992 baseball team can be on this (roughly around the same percentage), although it’s entirely possible that I wouldn’t reach 10 returning players anyway.

So, anyway, here are the rules for building the roster:

  1. To give players a head-start on preparing, the team is selected before or very early into the 1996 season using 1995 statistics as a guide.
  2. The selections aren’t just made with statistics in mind, but also fame/marketability.
  3. 25-player rosters.
  4. As mentioned above, a maximum of 10 players could be repeated from the 1992 team.

Let’s begin:

Manager: Buck Showalter

As mentioned back in the ’92 post, it is unlikely that an active manager would have been selected. With that in mind, the likely manager would have been one of the better ones who didn’t have a MLB coaching gig in 1996. Therefore, it is likely to have fallen to someone like Buck Showalter, fresh off getting fired from the Yankees because of the most famous play in Seattle Mariners history. In the real world, he was an advisor to the the nascent Arizona Diamondbacks at this time, which is part of the reason why he ended up being their original manager. I presume he would have been able to handle both.

Catchers: Mike Piazza and Charles Johnson

Piazza, of course, needs no introduction, although it is an open question as to whether the proud Italian-American would have suited up for Team USA or instead joined Team Italy. If for whatever reason he couldn’t or wouldn’t play for Team USA, his replacement would likely be either Mike Stanley, an all-star the year before on a Yankees club that Showalter had managed (he was on the Red Sox in 1996), or perhaps someone like Terry Steinbach or Chris Hoiles.

Charles Johnson is quite a bit less-remembered, but during his prime in the mid-to-late 90s he was one of the best defensive catchers in the game, winning four straight Gold Gloves from 1995 to 1998 with the Marlins. This, by the way, is one of the positions where Team USA unquestionably doesn’t have the best player on the planet in 1996: Ivan Rodriguez is from Puerto Rico.

First Basemen: Mo Vaughn, Mark McGwire, Frank Thomas

The use of three first-basemen is ultimately misleading, as it’s likely that one of these three would be the DH at any given time. All three were among the best and most marketable players in baseball at the time, with Vaughn coming off an MVP season. Frank Thomas is the first player on the team that was on the hypothetical ’92 team. Fred McGriff probably would be the next one up if someone refuses, especially since he was playing in Atlanta at the time. Edgar Martinez generally considers himself Puerto Rican so presumably he wouldn’t be available to play.

Second Baseman: Craig Biggio

Those of you who read the ’92 hypothetical know that not every position will have multiple players due to the roster limit of 25 players. Those who read the ’92 hypothetical also know that Biggio would have been a catcher on the ’92 team if not for the fact that was the year he changed to 2B. So, this time he would finally make the team as a 2B. Apologies to Chuck Knoblauch.

Shortstop: Cal Ripken Jr.

Cal Ripken Jr. was not the best American shortstop of 1995 or 1996, although he was certainly no slouch. Barry Larkin was better, as was John Valentin and some new kids named Alex Rodriguez (who, admittedly, sometimes has played for the Dominican instead) and Derek Jeter. However, a few things bring him back from the 1992 team. For one, Jeter and Rodriguez only truly became Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter in 1996, after this team would have been selected. For another, this was after the 1995 season and the breaking of Lou Gehrig’s streak, perhaps the point in time where Cal Ripken was the most beloved and famous person in baseball- at the very least the most beloved and famous person in baseball not named “Griffey.” Therefore, it is safe to assume given how much marketing and fame is involved in the selection that the only way Ripken wouldn’t be on the roster would be if he didn’t want to be. If that would be the case, Barry Larkin takes over. In fact, if not for the fact this was streak-era Cal Ripken he would have been on it with Ripken.

Ripken, by the way, would be the second carryover from the ’92 hypothetical team.

Third Basemen: Ken Caminiti, Wade Boggs

Whether the now-late Caminiti would have been able to beat an Olympic drug test is an open question, but less of a question is that he’d be on the team after a stellar 1995 campaign. Wade Boggs, another carry-over from the 1992 team (the third), is on instead of someone like Robin Ventura or Travis Fryman due to notoriety and the fact he had played for Showalter in 1995.

Outfielders: Ken Griffey Jr., Barry Bonds, Tony Gwynn, Dante Bichette

Griffey, Gwynn, and Bonds all return from 1992 (four, five, and six of returning players). Bichette was coming off a huge year. If you want to imagine the type of people who’d replace people if they pulled out, think along the lines of Albert Belle, Kenny Lofton, Steve Finley, Tim Salmon, Jim Edmonds, Jay Buhner, and Jeff Conine.

Kirby Puckett would have been a possible early pick but would have been replaced after he retired due to the emergence of glaucoma.

Utilityman: Tony Phillips

The seventh returning player is also the least notable member of the team. Tony Phillips was a do-everything supersub who played seemingly everywhere during his career, which would be very helpful in the tournament.

Starting Pitchers: Greg Maddux, Mike Mussina, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz

“But that’s literally the composition of 1996 Atlanta Braves rotation with Mike Mussina instead of Steve Avery,” you may say. Well, yes. Your point?

For what it’s worth, this would not have been the original rotation. Randy Johnson would have been on the team but was injured for most of 1996. A similar deal with David Cone, who missed time in 1996 due to surgery on an aneurysm. It would be these injuries, which presumably would come after the initial selection, that would lead to Glavine and Smoltz being added. Besides, the Olympics were in Atlanta, so there’s an argument that having players familiar with the stadium would be beneficial as well.

Glavine is the eighth player returning from the hypothetical 1992.

Relief Pitchers: Randy Myers, Lee Smith, John Wetteland, Heathcliff Slocumb, Dan Plesac, Mike Stanton, Mark Wohlers

Slightly more pitching heavy than the ’92 team due to the continued emergence of more reliever roles in the 90s. Lee Smith is the ninth player from the hypothetical ’92 team to be on Team USA in ’96, while Mike Stanton (the left-handed specialist pitcher) is the 10th and final. Rick Aguilera, would also have been on, but he was switched to starting pitching for 1996, so that nicely keeps the number at the maximum of 10 from the ’92 team.

So, the final roster of the hypothetical Team USA Olympic Baseball Team in the 1996 Olympics:

Manager: Buck Showalter (Ex-Yankees)

Catchers: Mike Piazza (Dodgers), Charles Johnson (Marlins)

First Basemen: Mo Vaughn (Red Sox), Mark McGwire (Athletics), Frank Thomas (White Sox)

Second Baseman: Craig Biggio (Astros)

Shortstop: Cal Ripken Jr. (Orioles)

Third Basemen: Ken Caminiti (Padres), Wade Boggs (Yankees)

Outfielders: Ken Griffey Jr. (Mariners), Barry Bonds (Giants), Tony Gwynn (Padres), Dante Bichette (Rockies)

Utilityman: Tony Phillips (White Sox)

Starting Pitchers: Greg Maddux (Braves), Mike Mussina (Orioles), Tom Glavine (Braves), John Smoltz (Braves)

Relievers: Randy Myers (Orioles), Lee Smith (Reds), John Wetteland (Yankees), Heathcliff Slocumb (Red Sox), Dan Plesac (Pirates), Mike Stanton (Red Sox/Rangers depending on when the baseball tournament took place in this alternate reality), Mark Wohlers (Braves)

So how would this team have done in the 1996 Olympics? As mentioned before, international baseball was already at a much higher level in 1996 than international basketball was at that point. Even if we were to assume that the same teams in the games were in this alternate reality as were in real life (unlikely, as presumably the inclusion of professionals would have added ammunition to teams like the Dominican and Mexico that didn’t qualify in the all-amateur ’96 tournament), several MLB players from the era would be taking part on teams other than Team USA.

Japan, for example, would have Hideo Nomo as well as stars from the NPB like a 22-year-old Ichiro Suzuki and a 22-year-old Hideki Matsui. South Korea similarly would likely have had a young Chan Ho Park. The Netherlands would possibly have had a young MLB rookie named Andruw Jones. El Presidente Dennis Martinez could have suited up for Nicaragua. Italy would probably have been able to have some Italian-Americans join up. Even Australia would have had a bonafide MLB player in Dave Nilsson. The only team that wouldn’t have had any chance of Major Leaguers would be Cuba due to the blacklisting by the team of defected players, and even then they would have likely put out a team similar to the one that won gold in Atlanta. That team featured a future MLB All-Star in Jose Contreras as well as some of the greatest baseball players to never play in American baseball, such as Omar Linares.

So while the ’96 team would probably have been a favorite, it would have by no means been a cakewalk- and that would continue going forward.

Next time: The hypothetical baseball dream team of 2000.

1 thought on “An Alternate History: The 1996 Baseball Olympic Dream Team

  1. Pingback: An Alternate History: The 2000 Baseball Dream Team | The Baseball Continuum

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