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Published: Thursday, 7/17/2008

Future Tigers, Indians Olympians; Hens won't have Hessman, Neal

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Mike Hessman, 30, a third baseman, leads the International League with 30 homers. Mike Hessman, 30, a third baseman, leads the International League with 30 homers.
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While Mike Hessman and Blaine Neal go for gold in August, the Mud Hens will have to pursue their fourth consecutive division title without them.

Hessman and Neal, two of Toledo's three all-stars, were both selected to the U.S. Olympic baseball team yesterday. Hessman, 30, a third baseman, leads the International League with 30 homers and Neal, also 30, is the league's saves leader with 23.

Also selected for the team that will open in the Beijing Olympics Aug. 13 against Korea were a pair of Cleveland Indians farmhands, including a recent addition.

Outfielder Matt LaPorta, traded from Milwaukee to the Indians last week in the CC Sabathia deal, was selected along with pitcher Jeff Stevens.

LaPorta, a first-round draft pick last year, hit .288 with 20 homers and 66 RBIs in 84 games for Double-A Huntsville this season. He's hitting .375 with a home run and four RBIs in four games since joining the Indians organization at Double-A Akron.

Stevens, a right-hander, is 0-1 so far at Triple-A Buffalo with five saves after starting the year at Akron where he went 5-1 with 37 strikeouts in 28 innings.

While LaPorta realizes this experience will only boost his chances of reaching the big leagues, he's not approaching the Olympics that way.

"More so it's the opportunity to represent this great country and put on the USA jersey, and I'm just so thankful for it," he said. "It's been like a roller coaster. There have been some good things and some bad things to go on the last couple of weeks. Overall it's been exciting. I can't say enough how great of an honor it is to represent the USA."

"We've got a great ballclub," Olympic manager Davey Johnson said. "It ain't going to be no cake walk. We've got our work cut out for us. It's going to be a great stepping stone for all the players."

"It's an honor for both of them to be selected," Dave Dombrowski, general manager for the Detroit Tigers, said of the two Hens selected. "It's a tremendous honor when anybody is selected to represent their country in the Olympics, which is why in my career we've never stood in a player's way in those situations."

The Hens trail Louisville by one game for first place in the IL West. They've managed to stay near the top despite losing several players to the Tigers.

Now, Toledo will have to do without two of its most consistent players for up to a month.

Team USA has its first exhibition game Aug. 1 in North Carolina against Canada. Olympic play lasts from Aug. 13-23. The two could leave the Hens as early as July 22.

"Being the major league club, there are mixed feelings that sometimes go into these things because for our minor league affiliates, the Olympics don't have the best timing," Dombrowski said. "But we want to honor the individual's wishes, and it's ultimately their decision to make."

The Hens had two players leave them for the Olympics in 2004 - Adrian Burnside (Australian team) and Danny Klassen (Team Canada).

Derek Nicholson also spent time with the Hens in 2004 and was chosen as an alternate for Greece, but tested positive for a diuretic, which can be used as a masking agent for other drugs, and was ruled ineligible.

Hessman and Neal shouldn't have the same problem. Both of them are already feel-good stories in 2008.

Hessman, who was placed on waivers, cleared, and returned to Toledo before the season started, has played like the reigning IL most valuable player that he is. He became the fastest player in at least 30 years to hit 20 homers earlier this year.

Neal was out of a job when major league spring training began and was signed by the Tigers out of a tryout camp. He converted his first 17 save opportunities this year.

"They're both good stories, interesting stories, and like I said, this is an honor for them," Dombrowski said.

Players on a 25-man major league roster are not eligible for Olympic competition.

- Joe Vardon

The Associated Press contributed to this report.



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