MIAMI - U.S. Olympic stars are bolting out of this summer's Pan American Games faster than a 40-year-old has-been can announce a comeback.
Carl Lewis? Gone. Janet Evans? Outta here. America's other elite swimmers? Competing in another meet. America's top boxers? Resting for the World Games in November.
With so many of this country's premier athletes participating in or training for other competitions, the Pan American Games focus falls on 20 young baseball players traveling to Havana for the tournament of their lives. Bright lights. Big city. Barcelona on the horizon.
Baseball, for the first time, will be an official gold medal sport in the 1992 Olympics. The Pan American Games are an Olympic qualifier. If the U.S. team doesn't finish among the top four, it can say adios to the Summer Games.
"Thankfully, we don't have to go to Havana and win it," U.S. coach Ron Polk said. "We just have to finish in the top four - but that will not be easy."
It won't be easy because the U.S. team will be dominated by players barely removed from puberty. The competition will be dominated by players fast approaching 30.
"The Cubans are in their mid- to late-20s," said Scott Bollwage, program director for the United States Baseball Federation, "and a few are in their early 30s."
The average age of the 20-player U.S. team, still to be selected, probably will be 20.
With the exception of Canada, comprised primarily of college players, the rest of the 10-team field - Puerto Rico, Mexico, Venezuela, Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Aruba, the Netherlands Antilles - also is considerably older than the United States.
Polk is attempting to balance two conflicting strategies. One is to select the oldest players available - college juniors - to enhance qualifying chances. The other is to go with freshmen and sophomores since the best college juniors will be playing pro ball next year.
Polk: "The ideal thing is to go with 20 juniors. They should be better, on the whole, than freshmen and sophomores any given year. If you want to finish in the top four that's what you do."
University of Miami and U.S. Olympic coach Ron Fraser: "I don't want him picking too many juniors. One is too many. I need sophomores with experience to go to the Olympics. My thinking is, `I want to get there, yes, but I want a shot at winning, too.' "
Fraser knows well Polk's dilemma. He coached the 1987 U.S. Pan American team that finished second in Indianapolis and qualified for the 1988 Summer Games when baseball was a demonstration sport. Incredibly, Fraser's team beat Cuba once, 5-4, to get to the Olympics.
"I think I had, out of my 20 guys, 16 sophomores," Fraser said. "And 10 or 11 of those 16 played the following year in the Olympics."
Of 37 players invited to the U.S tryouts starting tomorrow in Millington, Tenn., 22 are sophomores, seven are freshmen and eight are juniors.
If the U.S. team does not qualify for the Summer Games, the United States Baseball Federation says it will lose $4 million from corporate sponsors over four years.
If the U.S. team does not qualify, the USBF will lose another $100,000 in funding from the United States Olympic Committee.
If the U.S. team does not qualify, Fraser - Polk's friend and former mentor at Miami - does not go to Barcelona.
"What would it look like," Fraser said, "if we had the Olympics and baseball was a gold medal sport for the first time and we didn't have a team?"
Polk hears the question all the time. He hears from people like Scott Bollwage of the USBF, who says, "For the United States not to be in the baseball portion of the Olympics for the first time would not only be a disaster to the U.S., but a disaster internationally because interest in baseball would be lacking."
Polk's attempt to qualify for the Olympics won't be a snap. The 14-day, round-robin tournament that begins Aug. 14 is loaded with six teams capable of advancing to Barcelona - Cuba, Puerto Rico, Canada, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and the United States.