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.

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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.

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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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Michael Phelps ‘would probably do’ another Olympics if not for injury risk

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Michael Phelps said he would probably swim another Olympic cycle if it wasn’t for the possibility of injury, particularly with his shoulders.

“If you could guarantee me that I would never get injured in four years, and I would never have any problems with my shoulders or anything like that in four years, I’d probably do it again because I had more fun this time around,” Phelps said in a social media video Friday. “But I don’t want to risk that and not be able to spend time with Booms [son Boomer] when he grows up and watch him and be a part of every single part of his life when he gets older and older. So I think that’s something, for me, that I will never put my body through. I won’t take that chance. I think my body is way more important and my family is way more important than going another four years to swim in one more Olympics.”

Phelps’ right shoulder was a particular issue in his comeback for the Rio Olympics. He received two cortisone shots in the months before the Games, leading coach Bob Bowman to say that Phelps was “75 percent” of what he was at the 2008 Beijing Games, according to Sports Illustrated.

(Phelps has said he didn’t compete at 100 percent in Beijing, given an October 2007 broken wrist that interrupted training.)

Phelps reiterated, repeatedly as usual, during the 70-minute video that he would not return to competitive swimming. He still swims recreationally “for peace of mind” and “meditation.”

What about retirement saddens him?

“Not having the chance to represent my country anymore is something bums me out,” Phelps said, particularly hearing the national anthem atop the medal stand.

Phelps has plenty to keep him busy. The most pressing is testifying at a congressional hearing looking at improving the flawed anti-doping system in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday.

“I have a lot to say,” Phelps said. “To have that opportunity to speak out about my true feelings. I’ve never really, truly been able to do it.”

He began outlining those words Friday and said he had until Sunday to finish a page or a page and a half to present to the subcommittee.

“There are too many people who are cheating, that’s the easiest way to say it,” Phelps said. “Look what happened at the [Rio] Olympics, all the athletes that tested positive that were still allowed to compete. I think that’s wrong, and I think it’s unfair. I think that’s something that needs to clean.”

In Rio, Phelps praised teammate Lilly King‘s criticisms of athletes competing who had previously served doping punishments (such as King’s breaststroke rival, Russian Yuliya Yefimova). Phelps doubts he has ever competed in a clean race.

“I think you’re going to probably see a lot of people speaking out more,” Phelps said in Rio, according to The Associated Press. “I think [King] is right, I think something needs to be done. It’s kind of sad today in sports in general, not just in swimming, there are people who are testing positive who are allowed back in the sport and multiple times. It kind of breaks what sport is meant to be and that’s what pisses me off.”

Phelps said Friday that he hopes to help “clean the sports up so we can get back to why we play sports.”

“I don’t think any athlete should ever have that feeling that somebody else is at an advantage of using a performance-enhancing drug to help them,” he said. “I had these massive dreams and goals of things I wanted to accomplish and achieve, and never were they because I thought I could take an easy way by cheating. I basically just worked as hard as I could and made sure that my body was as prepared as I could possibly make it for every single meet. So I was able to accomplish the goals and dreams that I had. That’s something that I’m going to Congress to talk about.”

Phelps also added in Friday’s video that he hopes another swimmer will come along and break his records, that he was recently knocked out of a poker tournament by his wife and he will be in Budapest for the world championships in July.

Just not as a competitor.

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Dawn Harper-Nelson makes tearful plea about banned medication

BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - AUGUST 24: Dawn Harper-Nelson of the United States after winning the Women's 100m Hurdles during the Diamond League at Alexander Stadium on August 24, 2014 in Birmingham, England.  (Photo by Ben Hoskins/Getty Images)
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In a tearful social media video, Olympic 100m hurdles champion Dawn Harper-Nelson said Thursday that she was “afraid for my life” because she’s not allowed to take prescribed blood-pressure medication that is banned by anti-doping authorities.

“I just want to say that this is not fair, that I’m afraid for my life,” she said. “I’m about to go into urgent care, because my blood pressure’s really high again. And USADA [U.S. Anti-Doping Agency] said I can’t take the medicine the doctors giving me. And they’re giving me a new medicine. This is just not OK. My head’s bothering me, my vision’s kind of blurry, and they said my blood pressure is high. I’m scared. People need to be aware, this is not cool.”

Harper-Nelson is serving a three-month ban after previously taking a prescribed medication and failing to learn that it contained a banned substance. She said she was prescribed the medication after being rushed to an emergency room and diagnosed with high blood pressure. The ban ends March 1.

Athletes can request therapeutic use exemptions (TUEs) through USADA if they have an illness or condition that requires the use of medication listed on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s Prohibited List. It’s not clear if Harper-Nelson has requested a TUE for medication containing a banned substance.

Harper-Nelson tested positive for the banned diuretic hydrochlorothiazide, which is on the prohibited list, and related metabolites on Dec. 1, according to USADA:

Harper-Nelson’s explanation that her positive test was caused by a blood pressure medication she was prescribed by a physician to treat hypertension. Harper-Nelson further explained that she made efforts to determine if the medication contained prohibited substances; however, due to using partial search terms, those efforts were unsuccessful.

On Thursday, A USADA official reached out to Harper-Nelson on Twitter. USADA has not commented on the situation.

Harper-Nelson won the 2008 Olympic 100m hurdles title and took silver behind Sally Pearson in 2012. She failed to make the Rio Olympic team, getting eliminated in the Olympic Trials semifinals.

The U.S. trio in Rio swept the medals — Brianna RollinsNia Ali and Kristi Castlin.

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