Pulling on a pair of batting gloves on the dugout steps of a dusty suburban ball field, Dave Roberts shrugged at the mention of the word "pressure." But then the left fielder for the U.S. Pan American baseball team proceeded to describe just how much pressure he and his teammates are feeling as the Pan Am Games get underway with Friday's opening ceremonies.

"We do realize what is at stake," said Roberts, a Class AAA infielder in the Cleveland Indians' organization. "It would be sort of a travesty if the United States wasn't represented at the Olympics in baseball."

For baseball, the three-week Pan Am Games -- which will feature 5,000 athletes from 42 Western Hemisphere nations in 41 sports -- serves as a qualifier for the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. Only the top two finishers here will be invited to the 2000 Summer Games, the first to include professional baseball players.

For most other major Olympic sports, such as track and field, swimming and gymnastics, the competition does not have such significance.

"There are some very competitive teams here," said Pat Gillick, the former Baltimore Orioles general manager who helped choose the U.S. team roster. "It's not a slam dunk."

Considering the caliber of competition, it's difficult even to consider the United States a favorite. Consider: Cuba has sent a team that is believed to be better than the one that defeated the Orioles in a May exhibition game at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. And the Dominican Republic has beaten this U.S. squad twice in the last week -- by 10-3 and 5-1 margins.

U.S. Manager Buddy Bell pointed out that the games against the Dominican team were only exhibitions. He said he tried to look at various pitchers and position players, not necessarily using his best lineups. But, he added, "We also got our butts kicked pretty good. I don't think any of us really liked it. But that doesn't necessarily mean we're not a good club."

U.S. pitcher Brad Penny, recently traded to the Florida Marlins organization as part of a trade that sent reliever Matt Mantei to the Arizona Diamondbacks, said this is the most talented team he has ever played on. Certainly, however, it could have been stronger.

Gillick said 10 to 15 players originally selected for the team are not here. Most were simply called up to their major league clubs and thus were ineligible. Only players not on major league 40-man rosters may compete (and will be eligible for next year's Olympic team). A few, including Orioles prospect Matt Riley, declined the invitation, fearing they would hurt their major league chances if they took a three-week hiatus.

"We have some very good players here," Bell said. "We're okay. We're satisfied with what we have. All these guys want to be here -- that's the most important thing.

"I would prefer not to dwell on [those who declined]. I don't know what kind of pressure these players are under, but there has to come a time when players make decisions for themselves. Their agent is not always right, and their organization is not always right. A player has to have some guts."

Gillick and Bob Watson, another former major league general manager, put the roster together. They tried to mix a few veterans -- including 30-year-old Craig Paquette and 29-year-old John Zuber, both first basemen -- into what is generally a young team consisting of Class AA and AAA players.

The Pan Am Games also is the Olympic qualifying tournament for equestrian events, men's and women's field hockey, rhythmic gymnastics, softball, men's and women's team handball, triathlon, men's water polo and wrestling.

Given that baseball is America's pastime, the most important competitions will occur on the diamond at Quarry Park-Stonewall.

The United States begins play Monday against Canada. It plays Mexico on Tuesday, Cuba on Wednesday and Brazil on Thursday. The elimination rounds begin next Friday.

"It definitely turns up our intensity," Roberts said. "Everyone here welcomes the opportunity. It's the chance of a lifetime playing in something this big. To get the U.S. in the Olympics, that's pretty important. Me personally, I'm excited."

Pan American Games

Where: Winnipeg, Manitoba

When:

Today through Aug. 8

Data: The multisport event, held every four years, will feature 5,000 athletes from 42 Western Hemisphere countries.

Olympics: In some sports, the event serves as an Olympic qualifier. The U.S. baseball and softball teams will compete for a berth in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, along with wrestling, rhythmic gymnastics, triathlon, equestrian, badminton, men's and women's team handball and men's and women's field hockey.

CAPTION: Cauldron at Winnipeg Stadium is tested for today's opening ceremonies of the three-week Pan Am Games.

CAPTION: Gymnastics floor at Winnipeg Arena is vacuumed for Pan American Games, the Olympic qualifying tournament for a number of sports. Baseball competition promises to be keen.