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BASEBALL

Fri, July 16, 2004
Oly dream comes true
By PAUL FRIESEN -- Winnipeg Sun

Five years after pulling a Team Canada jersey over his head in one of the most memorable moments of his baseball career, Andy Stewart is about to do it again.

Only this time, instead of the Pan Am Games in downtown Winnipeg, the scene will be Athens, and the Summer Olympics.

Stewart is one of six players named to the Canadian Olympic baseball team yesterday who became national heroes at the 1999 Pan Am Games by winning the bronze medal, this country's first international baseball medal.

In four weeks, Stewart, Stubby Clapp and the rest of Team Canada '04 will try to recapture some of that magic on the largest stage of them all.

"This is No. 1," Stewart said, ranking his achievement from his home in Pennsylvania yesterday. "It has to be. I mean, this is the ultimate experience of a lifetime."

And Stewart can thank Winnipeg for it -- on two counts.

For one, his play at the Pan Ams -- a tournament-best four homers, 15 RBI and .452 average led Canada to a 6-1 record -- obviously hasn't been forgotten by manager Ernie Whitt and national team director Greg Hamilton.

"There's a core of guys who were a part of that and you respect that," Hamilton said at a news conference in Toronto. "There's something about winning that you can't measure."

Stewart, a catcher, can also thank the Goldeyes, who gave him a chance to don the mask again this season after four years of retirement.

"I needed a team to make it happen with," Stewart said. "They were the gateway... they made it possible."

Although he was released in a roster crunch earlier this month, Stewart showed that, at 33, he still had a good portion of the ability that carried him through a 10-year pro career, culminating in five games in the majors in 1997.

He admits, though, to spending some nervous nights tossing and turning, wondering if he had come back for nothing.

When he saw St. Louis Cardinals catcher Cody McKay sent down to the minors a while back, making him available to Team Canada, he really started to sweat.

"Yeah, I was concerned," Stewart admitted.

Then the phone rang Wednesday, and he felt like someone had taken a pile of rocks off his back.

"When you see that caller-ID light up, 'Baseball Canada,' it's kind of like, 'pheewwww,' " is how Stewart described it. "I don't think they're going to be calling me to tell me I didn't make the team. It just made everything worthwhile."

Now, Stewart isn't going to pick up where he left off in '99. He realizes his role in Athens will be to back up Pete Laforest of Hull, Que., who's playing triple-A ball in Tampa Bay's system.

What Whitt and Hamilton want from Stewart is the benefit of his experience, both internationally and as a pro. Someone who can handle a pitching staff and won't get freaked out by pressure.

Stewart knows he won't even be the de facto clubhouse leader, not with major league vets like Paul Spoljaric and Rob Ducey on board.

"You've got 14 guys on the roster here that have major-league experience," Stewart said. "It's like, 'Wow!' "

Six players, though, share a special bond after what they accomplished here five years ago.

Can they do it again? After the U.S. failed to qualify, why not?

"We're going over there to win a gold medal," Hamilton said.

Stewart isn't thinking that far ahead, yet. He's still enjoying the moment.

"What kind of feeling would that be to walk in with your country in the opening ceremonies?" he wondered aloud. "I feel complete as a player. Big leagues, Olympics -- you just feel like your resume is, like, wow, that covers it."


Does Canada's low-medal haul in Athens bother you?
Yes, it depresses me
No, it's just sports
I'm disappointed, but not worried
We'll get 'em in Turin
Don't care

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