Tokyo 2020: USA baseball manager Mike Scioscia following in footsteps of Tommy Lasorda as qualifying race heats up

New USA manager Scioscia, who played in the MLB under Tommy Lasorda, shares his memories of the only man to lead the U.S. to Olympic baseball gold

By ZK Goh
Picture by 2018 Getty Images

Despite being the traditional home of baseball, the United States has only ever won one Olympic gold medal in five official tournaments.

That is something new USA Baseball national team manager Mike Scioscia wants to change.

However, the U.S. has yet to qualify for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 (in 2021), and with only two of the six spots left to play for, qualifying will not be straightforward. The team is currently involved in the Americas Qualifier, and could have another chance at a Final Qualifier in Mexico if they miss out this week.

Scioscia has won three Major League Baseball (MLB) World Series rings in his career, two as a catcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers (1981, 1988) and one as a manager for the Anaheim Angels (2002).

It was his mentor and manager for the two Dodgers Fall Classic triumphs, Tommy Lasorda, who led Team USA to baseball gold at Sydney 2000 – something Scioscia would like to replicate this summer at the delayed Games.

Speaking to Olympics.com, Scioscia recalled the late Lasorda's pride in leading the 2000 squad. "We (the Dodgers in the 1980s) had a lot of success and he was a very emotional manager and always wore his heart on his sleeve.

"But when he won the Olympic gold medal, I saw part of Tommy had never seen. He was crying; he had tears in his eyes. I think that he understood just the weight that was going to have on baseball in the U.S., and I think that he was very proud of it.

"Hopefully our club this year will get to experience the same thing."

READ: Olympic baseball at Tokyo 2020: Top five things to know

"Dynamic" U.S. team selected for Qualifiers

Baseball has long been considered the United States' "national pastime", and despite restrictions from MLB on who can play in the Olympics and its qualifying tournaments, Scioscia has been able to put a roster together that incorporates both young prospects in Minor League Baseball (MiLB) as well as former MLB veterans who are currently free agents.

"Our response from players and try to put our team together has been sensational," Scioscia shared. "I think everyone understands the opportunity to put a USA jersey on. They want to be part of it.

"We've got a lot of young, exciting, dynamic players that you'll hear from in the next couple of years.

"We have a great blend of some veteran players that were free agents this year and maybe didn't get picked out of spring training. We've got a lot of players that are playing at the triple-A level that are very dynamic and young players that are going to make their mark in baseball. 

"We're very, very fortunate in the United States to have a deep well to draw from."

However, it isn't as straightforward as it seems. As with a number of other teams relying on players playing in MiLB, Scioscia and Team USA will be limited in how they can use young pitching arms.

"We will certainly follow whatever the guidelines are to us from the (player's) organisation," he said. "This is their player; they're lending him to us for the experience that he'll get in a high-pressure playoff situation.

"That won't be an issue. We'll be able to work with that and and we'll set our pitchers accordingly to the guidelines they give us."

On facing experienced opposition

USA have been drawn in a pool with Nicaragua, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic at the Americas Qualifier.

In the second "Super Round", they could face Cuba, Venezuela, Colombia, or Canada. The Dominican Republic and Venezuela have selected a number of MLB veterans: former Toronto Blue Jays slugger José Bautista, who hit 344 home runs during his MLB career and Melky Cabrera, who won a World Series with the New York Yankees are both on the Dominican roster while Venezuela can count on nine-year MLB catcher Robinson Chirinos and 2019 World Series-winning pitcher Aníbal Sánchez.

How will the U.S.' young arms deal with facing these hitters in the batter's box?

"I think that's a great test for a young pitcher to come out and not really look at the name on the back of a jersey and really look at a player's ability," Scioscia said. 

"You look at how he hits the ball. You want to obviously pitch to your strengths. I don't expect to be a distraction for our guys; we will do everything we can to let them understand: 'Go out there and just play your game.' 

"We want these guys to understand the test of making pitches, no matter who's in the batter's box, I think would be a great learning experience for them."

Two-way Shohei Ohtani an "incredible talent"

Should the USA qualify, they will face opponents like Japan, Israel, South Korea, and Mexico.

But one superstar who will not be at Tokyo 2020 – much to the disappointment of the home fans – is Japan's outfielder/pitcher Shohei Ohtani, one of a very small number of players to have seen MLB playing time as a "two-way player": someone who both pitches and plays a field position.

Ohtani has been red-hot for the Los Angeles Angels this season, and won the MLB American League Rookie of the Year Award in 2018 playing under Scioscia.

"Shohei is the first person I've seen that hits at an elite level and pitches an elite level," he said of the Japanese.

"You'll see guys as two-way players and maybe they're not quite as dynamic on the (pitching) mound as they are as a hitter, and maybe you find other pitchers that can do what they can do on the mound. So you take that pressure off and you just let them go after hitting or vice versa," Scioscia explained.

"I've never seen a person as dynamic as Shohei Ohtani in my years of baseball. The way he's pitching at such a high level and hitting such a high level is something that's very rare. And he's an incredible talent.

"And I think one of the things that people are forgetting is Shohei is one of the fastest men in baseball. He can really fly. So he put all that skill set together."

Staying focused

While the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games is the ultimate objective, Scioscia is keen not to look too far ahead, with a difficult qualifying route still ahead.

It will be a different experience for the 62-year-old manager, who is more used to the 162-game marathon of an MLB regular season.

"I think the (USA) coaches have been there for a while and have got me up to speed on a lot of the details of what it's going to be (like) moving forward," Scioscia said of his staff. 

"There's no doubt that (if) you stub your toe early in this tournament, sometimes it's tough to make it up. This is not a 162-game season we're used to in the major leagues. We need to play well and hit the ground running. 

"That's really going to be our goal."