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.

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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Lindsey Vonn sets date for proposal to enter men’s race

ALTENMARKT/ZAUCHENSEE, AUSTRIA - JANUARY 15: Lindsey Vonn of USA celebrates during the Audi FIS Alpine Ski World Cup Women's Downhill on January 15, 2017 in Altenmarkt/Zauchensee, Austria (Photo by Christophe Pallot/Agence Zoom/Getty Images)
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The U.S. Ski Team plans to submit a proposal in the spring for Lindsey Vonn to be able to race against men in November 2018, according to the Denver Post.

“I know I’m not going to win, but I would like to at least have the opportunity to try,” Vonn said, according to the newspaper. “I think I’ve won enough World Cups where I should have enough respect within the industry to be able to have that opportunity.”

Vonn’s idea is to race in Lake Louise, Canada, an annual late fall stop on both the men’s and women’s World Cup schedules. The men generally race in Lake Louise one week before the women do.

Vonn’s greatest success has come at Lake Louise, with 18 victories in 41 downhill and super-G starts dating to 2001.

Vonn previously requested in 2012 to be able to race against men in Lake Louise, but that was denied by the International Ski Federation (FIS). The federation said then “that one gender is not entitled to participate in races of the other.”

It doesn’t look like the federation’s stance has changed.

“You can set up a day where a female racer can compete against men racers, just as a show, but it has nothing to do with competition,” FIS women’s race director Atle Skaardal said, according to the Denver Post. “I don’t see that it’s going to change in the next years — no driving forces to urge a change like that. This is something the teams could do also in training. But why would you want to have a competition in this direction?

“I just don’t see the interest. For me it’s a meaningless comparison. It doesn’t matter if she’s one second behind or a half-second ahead. We compete female against female and men against men. To me it doesn’t matter if one gender is faster or slower. It doesn’t mean it’s a good idea, just because it’s of interest to one racer. I haven’t heard of any other sport being dragged into this kind of position.”

Vonn raced for the first time in 322 days on Sunday, finishing 13th in a World Cup downhill in Austria. It was actually an encouraging result, as Vonn said she wasn’t skiing to her limit in her first race back.

Her upcoming goals are to compete in the 2018 Olympics, after missing Sochi due to injury, and earn 11 more World Cup wins to break Ingemar Stenmark‘s career record of 86 victories. She can overtake Stenmark next season if she stays healthy and continues to win at her usual pace.

Vonn said in the spring that she would postpone retirement by one year and compete in the 2018-19 season if it meant being able to race the men.

But Skaardal’s comments suggest that won’t be possible.

“It’s definitely frustrating to hear that he said that, because I respect Atle very much,” Vonn said, according to the Denver Post. “He does a great job on the World Cup, and he is a former racer, so he understands. It’s disappointing to hear he doesn’t support it. But maybe if we organize something and a plan is put in front of him, maybe he would change his mind. I think most of the men are supporting me.”

Vonn is expected to race this weekend in a downhill and super-G in Garmish-Partenkirchen, Germany, streamed live on NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app.

MORE: Bode Miller plans to race next season, U.S. coach says

Wayne Gretzky compares Hayley Wickenheiser to NHL legend

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The greatest male hockey player of all time paid the greatest female player of all time quite the compliment at her retirement ceremony Saturday.

“You played with heart, desire, finesse, speed, skill,” Wayne Gretzky said to Hayley Wickenheiser. “The only other person, the greatest player to ever live, I think he would be happy if I said you were the female Gordie Howe. Congratulations.”

The Canadian legend Wickenheiser announced her retirement Friday, after six Olympics and four gold medals. On Saturday, she was honored before a Calgary Flames-Edmonton Oilers game. A highlight was a speech by Gretzky, who now works in the Oilers’ front office.

Wickenheiser’s first Olympics, Nagano 1998, marked the only Winter Games for Gretzky. Gretzky played in the first Olympics with NHL participation in Nagano, finishing fourth with Canada, and retired in 1999 without an Olympic medal.

“You’ve opened so many doors for so many young girls to be able to one day win a gold medal,” Gretzky said to Wickenheiser. “To me, that’s more important than anything.”

Wickenheiser then took the mic at center ice and reciprocated.

“A big part of why I play the game is because of this man standing right here, Wayne Gretzky,” she said, later adding, according to Canadian media, “In Salt Lake City [2002] when we won the gold medal, the first two people I saw when we stepped off the ice were Wayne and [former Oilers All-Star defenseman] Kevin [Lowe] standing in our dressing room cheering for us.”

As part of the Wickenheiser ceremony, a tribute video was played including messages from Canadian Olympian and Hall of Famer Mark Messier, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

MORE: Amanda Kessel sets sights on 2018 Olympics