USA Baseball

Remembering the 2000 U.S. Olympic Baseball Team

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Only once in five Olympic baseball tournaments did the U.S. win a gold medal in its national pastime.

That team, in Sydney in 2000, put together such a remarkable run to gold that it inspired ideas for a film, as well as a book titled “Miracle on Grass.”

No group will ever duplicate the 1980 U.S. Miracle on Ice hockey team, but the 2000 baseball team was quite the unlikely success story.

A ragtag roster of major-league castoffs and minor-league prospects was managed by USA Baseball’s most recognizable name of all, former Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda. The U.S. flew to Australia as decided underdogs in the eight-team tournament after taking fourth in 1992 and bronze in 1996.

The overwhelming favorite was Cuba, which won all 18 of its games en route to gold medals in the first two Olympic baseball tournaments in 1992 and 1996. But Cuba’s grip was softening, a trend accelerated by three factors.

1) The 2000 Olympic baseball tournament was the first to allow professional players. Though Major League Baseball teams would not send anybody from active rosters, this opened up the U.S. to send players with MLB experience rather than a group of collegians as it had in 1992 and 1996.

2) Wooden bats replaced aluminum, a transition some Cuban hitters struggled with.

3) The increase in Cuban defectors to the U.S.

Baseball and the Olympics: Ultimate Olympic All-Star Team | Olympians’ Ceremonial First Pitches

Lasorda, who turned 73 during the Games, had little familiarity with his team. He was selected as manager in May, the complete roster was not named until 10 days before they left for Australia and chances are he did not carry a CD player or Walkman.

“I knew absolutely nothing about any of them,” Lasorda said in Bud Greenspan‘s 2000 Olympic film. “I told them when I first met them, I don’t know you guys. … But I’m going to tell you this right now, and you remember what I’m telling you. When this thing is all over, the whole world is going to know about you guys.”

Notables who just missed the team included 40-year-old seven-time All-Star outfielder Tim Raines and a 20-year-old left-hander named CC Sabathia, who tossed five innings in a Team USA warm-up game before being pulled back by the Indians, who didn’t like the idea of Sabathia pitching in relief in Sydney.

The final 24-man roster reminded more of the “Major League” movie cast than the Dream Team. It ranged from 1992 World Series MVP catcher Pat Borders to future All-Star pitchers Ben Sheets and Roy Oswalt. Players were plucked from Shreveport, La., Round Rock, Ark., and Pawtucket, R.I.

“I know that when this team was picked, a lot of people looked at the list and said, ‘Who are these guys?'” first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz said at the time.

In Sydney, the U.S. joined seven other nations in a round-robin tournament. The top four teams would make the semifinals.

Cuba suffered its first Olympic loss in its fourth game, 4-2 to the Netherlands. The U.S. beat Japan in the longest game in Olympic history on a 13th-inning home run from 30-year-old outfielder Mike Neill, whose MLB résumé was six games for the Oakland Athletics in 1998. Three days later, it beat South Korea 4-0 on Mientkiewicz’s eighth-inning grand slam.

The U.S. was undefeated going into its round-robin game against Cuba. Both teams were going to reach the semifinals, so there wasn’t a whole lot to play for on paper. But it generated headlines, given the political history between the two nations, the previous year’s Elian Gonzalez affair and the U.S. seemingly closing the gap on Cuba’s dominance in Olympic baseball.

Cuba scored four runs in the first inning and rode a starting pitcher throwing upper 90s heat early on. Tensions heightened in the fourth inning when U.S. outfielder Ernie Young was hit by a pitch between his shoulder blades and pushed aside the Cuban catcher en route to first base. Mientkiewicz interfered with a Cuban player running to first base the next inning. In the eighth, a nasty home-plate collision caused Borders to fling the ball behind the plate as Cuba went up 6-0 and won 6-1.

The U.S. dusted itself off to face South Korea in the semifinals, but first watched and hoped Cuba would beat Japan in its earlier semifinal.

source: Getty Images
Ben Sheets gave up one earned run in 22 innings for the U.S. Olympic Team before making four All-Star teams with the Milwaukee Brewers. (Getty Images)

“The only way we were going to get respect is if, a) we beat [Cuba] and b) we beat them for the gold medal,” Mientkiewicz said in the Greenspan film.

Cuba did its part, blanking Japan 3-0 in red jerseys and pants. The U.S.’ night game against South Korea was played in cold, miserable, steady rain. It included a two-hour thunderstorm delay in the eighth inning. The U.S. had the go-ahead run on third base when play was stopped.

The game resumed after midnight, and Mientkiewicz won it 3-2 with a walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth. Grown men kissed him and told him they loved him in the celebration. Sheets told him he just won the U.S. a gold medal.

Of course, they hadn’t won the tournament yet. Cuba was next. Lasorda and Sheets had dinner the night before, where Lasorda told Sheets he was about to pitch the biggest game of his life.

“Who are we playing?” was the response from the Brewers prospect, also the team prankster.

Sheets said he knew nothing about Cuba before he faced them, but he stunned them by delivering a three-hit shutout for the gold medal.

The funny thing about the win was it wasn’t the biggest U.S. upset that night. It coincided with Rulon Gardner toppling Russian Aleksander Karelin in Greco-Roman wrestling.

Managers didn’t receive Olympic medals. No matter, Lasorda said he valued the title over his two World Series crowns, was more excited for Neill’s home run in the gold-medal game than Kirk Gibson‘s walk-off shot in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series and called it the greatest moment of his life. If he had the team together for two seasons, it would have made the World Series, he said.

Lasorda, as well as many players, cried during the medal ceremony.

“We came for the gold,” Lasorda repeatedly said during the on-field celebration, “and we got it.”

The U.S. failed to qualify for the 2004 Olympics and took bronze in 2008 before baseball was cut from the Olympic program. Cuba lost games in both the 2004 and 2008 tournaments, but managed gold and silver medals.

Mientkiewicz, who went on to play nine more MLB seasons and recorded the final putout for the Boston Red Sox in the 2004 World Series, said the Olympic experience was the greatest of his baseball career. He relives it every year.

“Every time someone stands on the medal stand and recites the national anthem, I feel like I’m part of the family,” Mientkiewicz said last year, days before baseball and softball lost an International Olympic Committee vote to return to the Olympics. “Outside of my son being born and my family and their health, winning the gold medal is No. 1 for me.”

The 2000 U.S. Olympic Baseball Team:

Pat Borders, C
Marcus Jensen, C
Doug Mientkiewicz, 1B
Brent Abernathy, 2B
Gookie Dawkins, SS
Adam Everett, SS
Sean Burroughs, 3B
Mike Kinkade, 3B
Mike Neill, OF
Anthony Sanders, OF
Brad Wilkerson, OF
Ernie Young, OF
John Cotton, DH
Kurt Ainsworth, P
Ryan Franklin, P
Chris George, P
Shane Heams, P
Rick Krivda, P
Roy Oswalt, P
Jon Rauch, P
Bobby Seay, P
Ben Sheets, P
Todd Williams, P
Tim Young, P

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7 more Kenyan athletes banned for doping

Emily Chebet
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Two-time cross-country world champion Emily Chebet was among seven Kenyan athletes banned for doping Friday, another indication that the country has a serious problem of cheating among its famed distance runners.

Chebet, the cross-country world champion in 2010 and 2013, was banned for four years after testing positive for the diuretic and masking agent furosemide, the Kenyan athletics federation said.

The list of sanctions announced by Athletics Kenya included bans for the two runners that failed doping tests at the world championships in Beijing in August. Joyce Zakary and Koki Manunga, who were provisionally suspended at the worlds, also received four-year bans for furosemide.

There has been a recent spike in doping cases in Kenya and more than 40 athletes have now failed tests since 2012. Kenyan track officials are under scrutiny after allegations of doping cover-ups, and separate accusations of embezzlement of money at the national federation.

This week, a group of athletes stormed the federation headquarters in Nairobi demanding the resignation of top officials over the doping scandals and corruption allegations.

Along with her two cross-country world titles, the 29-year-old Chebet was a bronze medalist in the 10,000 meters at last year’s Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. Her ban was backdated to July 17 and she will be unable to compete until July 16, 2019.

The doping cases of Zakary, a 400-meter runner, and Manunga, a 400-meter hurdler, undermined Kenya’s impressive display at this year’s worlds, where the country tied with Jamaica for the most gold medals with seven. They failed targeted tests carried out by world athletics body the IAAF in Beijing, enhancing suspicions that doping in Kenya is widespread.

Zakary set a national record of 50.71 seconds at the worlds before her failed test. The two were banned until Aug. 24, 2019.

The other four athletes banned on Friday were Agnes Jepkosgei, Bernard Mwendia, Judy Jesire Kimuge and Lilian Moraa Marita.

Jepkosgei was banned for four years for testing positive for the anabolic steroid metabolite norandrosterone. Mwendia was given a two-year ban for norandrosterone. Kimuge was banned two years for the norandrolone and Marita two years for the blood-booster EPO.

A World Anti-Doping Agency panel that recently reported on a systematic program of doping cover-ups in Russia said that Kenya also has a serious doping problem. That has spurred speculation that, like Russia, Kenya could face a blanket ban from international competition.

The IAAF has opened investigations into allegations that track officials in Kenya were involved in covering up positive doping tests. In a separate investigation, the IAAF is also looking at accusations of corruption against top officials at Athletics Kenya after they were questioned by Kenyan police over the alleged embezzlement of around $700,000 of the federation’s money.

One of the officials accused, AK Vice President David Okeyo, is a member of the IAAF’s decision-making council. The athletes protesting at Athletics Kenya this week demanded that Okeyo and AK President Isaiah Kiplagat step down.

IAAF clears Paula Radcliffe, defends its blood testing program

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(AP) — The IAAF cleared marathon world record-holder Paula Radcliffe of doping allegations on Friday and rejected claims that it failed to act on hundreds of suspicious blood tests, saying the accusations lacked “any scientific or legal basis.”

Track and field’s governing body issued a 38-page response to allegations by British and German media outlets that it had ignored and tolerated rampant blood doping in the sport.

“The IAAF is not complacent about doping in its sport,” the federation said. “It will continue to use every tool at its disposal to fight doping and protect clean athletes.”

The statement was released a few days before IAAF President Sebastian Coe faces a British parliamentary hearing into the doping allegations made by The Sunday Times newspaper and German broadcaster ARD.

Already reeling from revelations of government-backed doping in Russia and criminal corruption charges against former president Lamine Diack, the International Association of Athletics Federations said it had a duty to set the record straight on the blood doping issue.

“The IAAF cannot sit idly by while public confidence in its willingness to protect the integrity of its sport is undermined by allegations of inaction/incompetence that are based on bad scientific and legal argument,” it said.

The IAAF singled out the case of Radcliffe, saying the three-time London Marathon winner was publicly accused of doping “based on the gross misinterpretation of raw and incomplete data.”

Elevated blood value readings in some of Radcliffe’s tests had “clearly plausible” explanations that were “entirely innocent,” the IAAF said.

“Any competent scientist would immediately conclude that they should be disregarded,” the statement added.

The IAAF said it followed up by testing Radcliffe’s urine and blood samples for EPO and blood transfusions, and all the results came back negative.

“Obviously there’s been damage done to my reputation, and to the reputation of the sport, and that’s why I took the stand I did against this,” Radcliffe said Friday after the release of the IAAF statement. “Yes, it was only me being singled out but there are a lot of other innocent, clean athletes who have or may produce an atypical value at some point.

“That’s precisely why it has to be kept so confidential until an expert that’s properly qualified looks at it and assesses it.”

Britain’s national anti-doping agency said it also reviewed Radcliffe’s test results and agreed there was no case against her.

“The data does not provide any evidence that any anti-doping rule violation proceedings should be brought,” the UK Anti-Doping Agency said.

Radcliffe, who retired from competition this year, was publicly implicated during a British Parliamentary hearing in August into the doping allegations leveled by the British and German media.

She acknowledged that her blood-testing data may have shown “fluctuations” but insisted there were no “abnormalities” and experts had concluded she had done nothing wrong.

Radcliffe set the world record when she ran 2 hours, 15 minutes, 25 seconds in winning the 2003 London Marathon. She also won the New York Marathon three times (2004, `07 and `08) and the Chicago Marathon in 2002. Radcliffe competed in four Olympics but never won a medal.

The Sunday Times and ARD examined the results of 12,000 blood tests involving 5,000 athletes from a leaked IAAF database covering 2001 to 2012 and concluded there was evidence of widespread cheating.

The reports said that 146 medals — including 55 golds — in disciplines ranging from the 800 meters to the marathon at the Olympics and world championships were won by athletes who have recorded suspicious tests. The Sunday Times also claimed the London Marathon was won seven times over a 12-year period by athletes who recorded suspicious tests.

The IAAF said Friday that its biological passport program — which monitors athletes’ blood profiles over time for evidence of doping — began in 2009 and that all screenings done before then could not be used as proof of doping.

“No charge could ever be brought based on the pre-2009 tests,” the statement said.

The IAAF said it would respond separately to allegations made in a report by a World Anti-Doping Agency commission this month that IAAF officials swept aside up to eight blood doping cases in 2012, allowing athletes to compete at the London Olympics when they should have been suspended.

MORE: Russia vows to follow all WADA recommendations on doping