LaHair recalls Team USA success
Catcher played key role in U.S. win in qualifying tournament
SEATTLE -- Mariners first baseman Bryan LaHair helped get Team USA back to the Olympics, but he won't be in Beijing next month lending a helping hand in the team's pursuit of a gold medal."Nothing was etched in stone, but I think I had a pretty good chance of being selected because I have played well for Team USA in the past," LaHair said on Tuesday. "But as cool as playing in the Olympics would be, I'd rather be here, in the big leagues." If LaHair had been selected, he would have been the only player to play in both the Olympic qualifier tournament, which was played in Havana in 2006, and the 2008 Olympics. Team USA, which does not include anyone from the Mariners organization, currently is in North Carolina preparing for a series of practice games against Team Canada before departing for Beijing. LaHair, promoted from Triple-A Tacoma last Friday and collected his first Major League hit -- a line-drive single to right field Monday night against the Red Sox -- batted cleanup for Team USA, which went 8-1 during the Olympic qualifier tournament. After clinching a spot in the Beijing Games with an 11-5 victory over Panama in the semi-finals, LaHair and company stunned highly favored Cuba, 8-5, in the finals. "That was awesome, especially the championship game," the 25-year-old LaHair recalled. "There were about 45,000 fans waving [Cuba] flags, and maybe eight or nine Army and Marine guys, waving USA flags." The Cuba team was virtually the same one that finished second in the inaugural World Baseball Classic played earlier in the year, losing in the championship game against Japan, which was led by Mariners right fielder Ichiro Suzuki and Red Sox right-hander Daisuke Matsuzaka. "Qualifying for the Olympics meant a lot to USA baseball, because it had failed the last time," he said, referring to the '04 Games played in Athens.
Team USA, which won the Gold Medal at the 2000 Games in Sydney, did not get an opportunity to defend its title, being eliminated by Mexico in the qualifier tournament.Redemption came in '06. "We had a great team," LaHair recalled. "Most of them are already here [Major Leagues]. I'm about the last one." Team USA included Brandon Wood -- who hit an eighth-inning, game-deciding, home run against Cuba -- of the Angels, Athletics catcher Kurt Suzuki, Royals outfielder Billy Butler, Diamondbacks infielder Mark Reynolds and Rangers catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia. "My average wasn't that high [.222]," LaHair said, "but I actually did pretty well during the tournament. I hit for power." LaHair hit two homers and drove in nine runs in the eight qualifier games he played. The Mariners are hoping that LaHair can inject some offense into their lineup the remainder of this season and beyond. He was hitting .263 (83-for-215) with 26 doubles, one triple, 12 home runs and 53 RBIs in 85 games for Tacoma, ending his stint there on a nine-game hitting streak and batting .348 (16-for-46) over his final 12 games. He grounded into a double play in his first Major League at-bat and went 0-for-3 with a walk in his first big league start, Saturday against the Indians. The career-opening hitless streak reached eight official at-bats before he hit a single off Red Sox right-hander Daisuke Matsuzaka on Tuesday night. "They say the first couple of games get you pretty amped up and I put more pressure on myself to get that first hit," he said. "I decided before my last at-bat to let my hands fly and make good contact, which I did." Originally selected in the 39th round of the First-Year Player Draft in 2002, LaHair has spent his entire career in the Mariners organization. He batted .287 with 70 home runs and 376 RBIs in 594 Minor League games and selected as the organization's Minor League MVP in 2006. The first few days in the big leagues were primarily stress-free for the native of Worcester, Mass. "I want to have fun, enjoy every moment and stay focused on what's at hand," he said. The best part so far? "Seeing my wife and dad on the field [on Saturday]," he said.
Jim Street is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.