ANAHEIM, Calif. — Mark McGwire most often recalls the 1984 Olympics when asked to autograph his rookie card.
No. 401 in the 1985 Topps set depicts a toothy-grinned 20-year-old USC first baseman. Bat over his right shoulder. Marlboro cigarettes signage beyond his left. Team USA jersey and cap.
McGwire was at Shea Stadium, on a pre-Olympic tour.
“As a young kid, playing baseball, you think someday I might have a baseball card, right?” McGwire, now the Dodgers hitting coach, said before a Freeway Series game at Angel Stadium on Wednesday. “I remember thinking [before the photo shoot], if that’s my first baseball card, I’m going to get a wood bat. I didn’t want to have an aluminum bat in my hand [aluminum bats were used in NCAA and Olympic baseball]. I want to say it was a Louisville [Slugger]. Even though I used Rawlings my whole life.”
Today is the 30th anniversary of the first Olympic baseball tournament gold-medal final, when it was a demonstration sport played at Dodger Stadium at the Los Angeles Games. Medals were awarded, but the one currently dangling in McGwire’s office isn’t “official” like those earned by Carl Lewis or Mary Lou Retton.
Baseball had been a very loose part of some Olympics as far back as 1904, mostly in one-game exhibitions before 1984, “sometimes on a makeshift diamond in the middle of a track and field layout.”
It became a standard sport starting in 1992 until it was voted out of the Olympic program after the 2008 Beijing Games.
In 1984, McGwire and 19 more college players made up what he later called a dream team — notables included Will Clark and Barry Larkin. Ken Caminiti was among the final cuts after quite the selection process, according to Sports Illustrated:
More than 3,000 candidates, including a 12-year-old girl and a 43-year-old man, participated in 63 open one-day tryouts that began last fall.
McGwire is the most recognizable player to ever don a U.S. Olympic baseball uniform, two years before his Major League debut and 14 years before he broke Roger Maris‘ single-season home-run record during a career tainted by steroid use.
He called the 1984 Olympic team the greatest collection of U.S. amateur players up to that date. Eighteen of the 20 Olympians were drafted in MLB’s first round in 1984 or 1985.
“A lot of us had nice careers in the big leagues afterwards,” McGwire said, reeling off names, “but we came up just short in that last game.”
Japan shocked the U.S. for gold, 6-3, after losing six of their seven pre-Olympic exhibition meetings.
McGwire had one hit in the final, finishing the five-game competition a disappointing four for 21 with no home runs.
He smacked 32 homers in his final season at USC that year, before going to the A’s with the 10th overall pick in the June draft. He hit .359 in a 37-game pre-Olympic tour, according to his book, “Mark McGwire: Home Run Hero.”
“It’s just like playing well in the playoffs prior to the World Series, and all of a sudden you don’t play well in the World Series,” McGwire said. “You’re talking 30 years ago. I don’t really remember. I remember I didn’t do very well.”
Despite little reported TV coverage, major U.S. news outlets still deemed Olympic baseball a success, the unusual sound of aluminum dings inside Dodger Stadium drowned out by cheers of game crowds greater than 50,000. And an Asian umpire signaling balls and strikes with white gloves, according to The New York Times.
“It was like a World Series atmosphere,” McGwire said. “For never being in a World Series at the time. Now I know what a World Series is like. But it was awesome, it really was. A packed house.”
The U.S. became overwhelming favorites when Cuba joined the Soviet Union-led boycott two months before the Opening Ceremony. McGwire says now he doesn’t remember any chatter among the Americans about missing the Cubans. Give him a break, it was 30 years ago, but here’s what he told Sports Illustrated before the Olympics:
“I don’t see how we can miss getting the gold,” says McGwire. “The only team that could have competed with us was the Cubans. It’s too bad they’re boycotting. The teams we’re playing just can’t compete with our power.”
The U.S. was joined in the eight-team tournament by Japan, Canada, the Dominican Republic (Cuba’s replacement), Italy, Nicaragua, South Korea and Taiwan.
First, McGwire marched in the Opening Ceremony at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, across the street from USC.
“I remember when we were at USC at Heritage Hall, they had all the captains for all the sports take a photo,” McGwire said. “I have it somewhere in storage, but there was a young guy by the name of Michael Jordan that was there [Jordan, like McGwire, played at the Los Angeles Olympics two months after being drafted]. So it was pretty cool. I remember the baseball players were battling the basketball players on who’s going to be the last Americans to come out of the tunnel [to march at the end of the Parade of Nations]. We were all together.”
McGwire earned the first base job over Clark, perhaps boosted by the fact Team USA’s manager was also McGwire’s coach at USC, Rod Dedeaux. Clark went to the outfield.
“And you know, there was a guy who never played,” McGwire added. “Barry Larkin.”
Larkin actually did play a little in the Olympics, but McGwire said the primary middle infielders were San Diego State’s Flavio Alfaro — who never played in the majors — and Oklahoma State’s Gary Green.
“From what I was told, it was because [Larkin] was the younger kid on the block,” McGwire said. “He was the sophomore. But, Hall of Famer. To think he didn’t really play that much. It’s amazing to think why he didn’t, but that’s how Rod made the lineup.”
The U.S. fared fine without Larkin at the start of the Olympics, winning all four of its games en route to the final, including 16-1 and 12-0 wins over Italy and the Dominican Republic, respectively. They had a nine-run first inning against Italy.
“In ’83, we went over to Amsterdam,” McGwire said. “I just remember people saying, baseball’s just starting over here. They’re learning how to play the game of baseball. We had a chance to play it since we were little kids.”
In past interviews, McGwire lamented a grueling pre-Games, six-week nationwide tour, where he played in big-league stadiums against local college all-star teams and at more barnstorming outposts like Battle Creek, Mich., and Tri-Cities, Wash., with few days off.
“I may have made it to the majors a year sooner [if it hadn’t been for the Olympics],” McGwire told the Los Angeles Times in 1992. “If I had to do it again, I don’t know if I would.”
That feeling wasn’t palpable inside Angel Stadium on Wednesday. McGwire grinned and joked, remembering his first run-ins with Don Zimmer and Reggie Jackson on that tour, and his one regret.
“It was a great honor,” he said. “Unfortunately, I wish I could say that I had a gold medal for it.”