10/17/2003 5:40 PM ET
Sledge vying to play on Team USA
By Bill Ladson / MLB.com
Terrmel Sledge hit .324 with 22 home runs and 92 RBIs in Triple-A in 2003. (AP)
PEORIA -- When Montreal Expos outfielder Terrmel Sledge was told that he was being considered to play for Team USA, he was honored, but didn't think he would be selected. After all, 499 players were told the same thing and Team USA was looking to fill the roster with just 30 players.
To his surprise, however, Sledge received word on Sept. 24 that he was one of those 30 players to be invited to the 2003 Olympic Qualifying Team trials in Phoenix from Oct. 3-23. Team USA is managed by Expos skipper Frank Robinson.
Sledge is vying for one of the 24 spots on a squad that will play in Panama next month in the Americas Qualifying Event to make the eight-team baseball tournament in the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece.
Sledge said playing for Team USA makes up for the fact that he didn't receive a September callup. The left-handed hitting Sledge wasn't promoted from Triple-A Edmonton because the Expos were over budget.
"I'm here now and I think it's a great honor to play for my country," Sledge said. "I'm not taking this for granted at all. They are saying that you are among the best playing this game."
While in Edmonton, Sledge, 26, showed that he was clearly the best prospect in the Expos organization. In 131 games, he hit .324 with 22 home runs and 92 RBIs. He was the only player in the Expos' minor league system to drive in 90 or more runs. For the first time in his short career, Sledge showed signs that he could hit for power and drive in runs. Prior to 2003, he never hit more than 11 home runs and his career high in RBIs was 77, both coming in Class-A ball in 2000.
"It couldn't come at a better time. I've been through all the levels, so maybe the Expos will see that I'm ready for the (big leagues)," he said.
Sledge credits his success in '03 to the fact that he spent most of Spring Training with the Major League club. From Day One, Robinson told him that he wasn't going north with the team. Robinson wanted Sledge to enjoy success at Triple-A first. However, according to Sledge, that didn't stop Robinson and hitting coach Tom McCraw from giving him advice.
"They helped me with my approach at the plate. My approach now is to not try and cover the whole plate. I'm looking for zones and driving the ball more," Sledge said.
Sledge's success has carried over with Team USA, where he started four of the first six games and is 7-for-18 (389) with three RBIs.
Sledge is hoping that his success will convince Robinson that he is ready for the big leagues.
"He's the manager of my organization. For him to look at me more, it give me an advantage. It's not going to have a bad effect on me," Sledge said.
Robinson believes that Sledge is ready for the big leagues and will have a very good career when it is all over.
"He's going to be a very good ballplayer when he gets to the big leagues," Robinson said. "He's still growing and he's still learning. I don't think he's going to be a big home run hitter, but he can drive the ball into the alleys and hit his fair share of home runs."
When his time with Team USA comes to an end, Sledge's season on the diamond will continue. He will play for Ponce in the Puerto Rican Winter League. Sledge says he is not tired and doesn't want to have a long layoff before Spring Training.
"I'm trying to get better and gain more experience," Sledge said. "It's a good time to play winter ball. I'll be better prepared going into Spring Training instead of coming in with a three- or four-month layoff."
There's a possibility that Sledge could be the starting right fielder if free agent Vladimir Guerrero decides not to re-sign with the club, and Sledge said that he is ready for the challenge.
"Nobody can fill Vladdy's shoes," Sledge said. "I'm just going to go out there and try to do my best and try to compete for a position out there. I've been through all the levels and I feel that my numbers speak for themselves. I just want an opportunity to see what I could do up there."