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Saunders remembers Olympic experience

BALTIMORE -- When an Olympic long-distance track race played out on the television in the Mariners' clubhouse earlier this week, utility infielder Munenori Kawasaki started loudly chanting for the Japanese runner in the lead as teammates looked on with amusement.

Michael Saunders doesn't have quite as much to openly cheer for at the London Games, but Seattle's center fielder knows firsthand the pride that comes with representing your country.

Saunders played for Canada's baseball team at the 2008 Games in Beijing, just as Kawasaki and Mariners pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma competed for Japan. All these players maintain a keen interest in the current Olympics under way in London.

"I keep an eye on it," Saunders said. "We're not able to watch too much of it with our schedule, but it's on in the clubhouse a lot and obviously I'm always rooting for Canada ... even though we're biding our time for the Winter Olympics."

Saunders hit .286 (8-for-28) with two home runs, four RBIs and five runs in seven games to help Canada finish sixth in Beijing. He still has vivid memories of the entire experience.

"Any time you get to wear your country's name across your chest, you're very proud," he said. "The Opening Ceremonies was something I'll never forget. And I got to see the 100-meter finals with Usain Bolt breaking the world record."

Every athlete is given a chance to request a ticket to another Olympic sport they'd most like to see, with a top-three priority list in case of sold-out events. Saunders took his request form and listed the men's 100-meter dash finals on all three lines "just to give them a heads up that's what I wanted to see."

So there he was when Bolt won gold and struck his famous pose.

"I got to sit right at the finish line," said Saunders, who ran sprints and did a little high jumping in his school days in Victoria, British Columbia. "We were there a good three hours before the 100 and could see the discus and shot put and other stuff, but you're just waiting for the nine seconds that they run. It's over in a flash, but it was completely worth it.

"To see the fastest man in the world ... I mean, who wouldn't want to be the fastest man in the world? So it was pretty special."

Saunders has fond memories of the Olympic Village as well, with his favorite story being how in the midst of the huge dining area with a variety of food options sat a McDonald's.

"At the start, the only ones eating there were the baseball players," he said with a grin. "But by the end, after all the other athletes were getting done with their competitions, we couldn't even get in there anymore because the lines were so long. Some of those people hadn't eaten a hamburger for four years while they were training."

Saunders' only regret is that baseball is no longer an Olympic event this year.

"I think the Olympics stands for the top athletes in the world, and unfortunately, because it's during our season, MLB doesn't allow our top guys to go," he said. "So I don't know that I'm surprised, but definitely disappointed.

"I feel bad for the guys who aren't able to play and represent their countries anymore, because the experience is second to none. The World Baseball Classic kind of tries to take over for that, and they do an awesome job, but it's not the Olympics."

Saunders, 25, is one of two current Major Leaguers who played for Team Canada in Beijing, along with Blue Jays third baseman Brett Lawrie.

He hopes to get a chance to represent Canada again next spring in the Classic.

"If I get an opportunity, I'd love to," Saunders said, "but ultimately I'm a Seattle Mariner first and [Classic] participant second. I'd love to play, but I have to have my priorities straight."

Kawasaki and Iwakuma were both members of Japan's 2009 World Baseball Classic championship team, along with Ichiro Suzuki. Saunders, who grew up just outside Victoria, knows his country doesn't have quite the same baseball history, but he's willing to take his chances.

"Canada isn't as deep as the United States or Dominican or Venezuela and some of those," he said. "But we've got Justin Morneau, Joey Votto, Russell Martin, Jason Bay, Ryan Dempster, Erik Bedard, Scott Diamond, Adam Loewen. It'd be great if Matt Stairs would come back to add a little thump. We could definitely field a team."

And if Saunders could wear "Canada" across his chest again, he wouldn't even have to bide his time until the Winter Olympics to feel that home-country pride once more.

Seattle Mariners, Hisashi Iwakuma, Munenori Kawasaki, Michael Saunders