Ed Sprague, 1988 Topps Traded, 113T
The Olympics are underway, but for the first time in nearly 30 years there will be no baseball to be found. In 2005 the International Olympic Committee bounced baseball and softball from the games beginning this year for a variety of reasons from PR-driven steroid posturing to a general lack of global interest.
While it might be tempting to try and muster some level of moral outrage for the game we all love, frankly it is not much of a loss to most. Olympic baseball has been seen as a general nuisance, when it is noticed at all, and with the creation of the World Baseball Classic giving us competition among the best players in the game, it is tough to make a case for the return of awkward collections of minor leaguers and college kids.
Debuting in the 1904 games in St. Louis, baseball spent most of its history in the Olympics as an exhibition or demonstration sport. The early incarnations in 1912, 1936, 1952, 1956 and 1964 were just one-off games between the U.S. and, typically, a team from the host country. After a hiatus, it returned in 1984 and again in 1988, this time in a tournament format, but still not an official Olympic event. Finally, in 1992 in Barcelona it made its official debut, with Cuba winning the first ever Olympic gold medal in baseball.
What does all of this have to do with the Blue Jays? Well, in the history of the franchise there have been four players who have won Olympic gold medals, all from the 2000 gold medal winning U.S. team which featured a late career Pat Borders and then up and comers Jon Rauch, Anthony Sanders and Brad Wilkerson. But you if you include those 1980’s demonstration tournaments you can add Ed Sprague to the list as well. In fact, if you include that medal, Sprague is the only player in baseball history to win a College World Series, Olympic Gold Medal, and the World Series.
Having been drafted in the first round of the 1988 draft, the eventual World Series hero was already a member of the Blue Jays minor league system when he joined several future MLB’ers including Robin Ventura, Jim Abbott, and Tino Martinez in Seoul, South Korea to help Team U.S.A. avenge their defeat four years earlier. The 1984 team was loaded with, now iconic, names like Barry Larkin, Mark McGwire and Will Clark but still came up just short to Japan, losing 2-1 in the Gold Medal game. But the 1988 team would not be denied, losing only once (to a Team Canada that featured Matt Stairs and Rob Butler) on their way to a 5-3 victory over Japan in the rematch.
An interesting side note is that Sprague’s wife Kristen Babb-Sprague is an Olympic medal winner as well, taking home the gold in synchronized swimming at the 1992 Olympics, but not without controversy. Babb-Sprague was awarded the gold despite protests from the Canadian team who argued that a judge’s mistake in hitting the wrong scoring button denied Syvlie Frechette her rightful medal. After many appeals, eventually
Frechette was granted a second gold medal for the event. (And that may be the only time I am able to shoehorn a synchronized swimming story into a baseball piece.)