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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Fallout from Larry Nassar scandal continues with latest resignation

AP
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Michigan State University’s governing body on Thursday accepted interim president John Engler’s resignation , but said it would be effective immediately rather than next week. It’s the latest development stemming from the sexual assault investigation of now-imprisoned gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar.

Engler took over at the school on a temporary basis after the previous president quit in the wake of fallout from the scandal. The board appointed Satish Udpa as the new interim president. He currently serves as the school’s executive vice president for administration.

Numerous people have been charged, fired or forced out of their jobs during the investigations into the once-renowned sports doctor. He was sentenced to decades in prison after hundreds of girls and women said he sexually molested them under the guise that it was medical treatment, including while he worked for Michigan State and Indiana-based USA Gymnastics, which trains Olympians.

Here’s a look at some of the individuals and organizations that have been affected:

MICHIGAN STATE UNIVERSITY

— Lou Anna Simon: The university president and school alumna resigned last January amid growing pressure. She denied any cover-up by the university. The governing board later hired Engler. Heresigned amid fallout from remarks he made about some victims of Nassar.

The school has settled lawsuits totaling $500 million. Simon is charged with two felony and two misdemeanor counts of lying to a police officer in connection with the investigation.

— Mark Hollis: The athletic director called his departure last year a retirement, but he, too, faced pressure to leave.

— Kathie Klages: The former head gymnastics coach resigned in 2017 after she was suspended for defending Nassar over the years. Klages was charged with lying to investigators. If convicted, she could face up to four years in prison. She has denied allegations that former gymnast Larissa Boyce told her that Nassar had abused her in 1997, when Boyce was 16.

— Brooke Lemmen: The former school doctor resigned in 2017 after learning the university was considering firing her because she didn’t disclose that USA Gymnastics was investigating Nassar. A state Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs investigation cleared her of any violations in November.

— William Strampel: The former dean of the university’s College of Osteopathic Medicine is awaiting trial after being charged in March amid allegations that he failed to keep Nassar in line, groped female students and stored nude student selfies on his campus computer. Strampel, who has also been named in lawsuits, retired June 30, even as Michigan State was trying to fire him.

— Bob Noto: The university in February announced the departure of its longtime vice president for legal affairs. The school called it a retirement. Noto had been Michigan State’s general counsel since 1995.

USA GYMNASTICS

— Rhonda Faehn: The former senior vice president of the organization was dismissed this month by the University of Michigan after working for just a few days as a coaching consultant for its women’s team. She was fired after an outcry over her hiring. USA Gymnastics parted ways with Faehn as senior vice president in May after she was criticized by Nassar’s victims for not contacting authorities about potential abuse concerns.

— Valeri Liukin: The coordinator of the women’s national team for USA Gymnastics announced in early February that he was stepping down, less than 18 months after taking over for Martha Karolyi. Liukin said that while he wanted to help turn around the program, “the present climate causes me, and more importantly my family, far too much stress, difficulty and uncertainty.”

— USA Gymnastics said last January that its entire board of directors would resign, as requested by the U.S. Olympic Committee. The USOC last month took steps to decertify the gymnastics organization that picks U.S. national teams, and USA Gymnastics filed a Chapter 11 bankruptcy petition last week as it attempts to reach settlements in the dozens of sex-abuse lawsuits it faces and to forestall its potential demise at the hands of the USOC.

— Steve Penny: The former president and CEO of the organization resigned under pressure in March 2017. He was replaced by Kerry Perry, who took over in December 2017. Penny pleaded not guilty in October to a third-degree felony alleging he ordered the removal of documents relating to Nassar from the Karolyi Ranch in Texas.

— Less than a year after being hired as USA Gymnastics’ president and CEO, Perry resigned in September after the USOC questioned her ability to lead the scandal-rocked organization.

— Former California U.S. Rep. Mary Bono was hired in October as the interim president for USA Gymnastics only to resign four day later. Bono said she felt her affiliation with the embattled organization would be a “liability” after a social media post by Bono criticizing Nike and former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick drew widespread scrutiny within the gymnastics community. Six-time Olympic medalist Aly Raisman also questioned Bono’s association with a law firm that advised the organization on how to handle portions of the Nassar scandal.

— Ron Galimore: The longtime USA Gymnastics chief operating officer resigned in November but denied any wrongdoing in the Nassar scandal. The Indianapolis Star reported in May that an attorney hired by USA Gymnastics directed Galimore to come up with a false excuse to explain Nassar’s absence at major gymnastic events in the summer of 2015. The organization was looking into complaints against Nassar at the time.

TWISTARS GYMNASTICS CLUB

— John Geddert: The owner of the Michigan club was suspended last January by USA Gymnastics and announced his retirement. He was the U.S. women’s coach at the 2012 Olympics. Geddert has said he had “zero knowledge” of Nassar’s crimes.

KAROLYI RANCH

— USA Gymnastics said last January that the Texas ranch where a number of gymnasts said Nassar abused them would no longer serve as the national training center. Owners Martha and Bela Karolyi have since sued the USOC and USA Gymnastics, seeking damages for a canceled sale of the property. They also have been named in lawsuits.

— Debra Van Horn: Texas prosecutors in June filed sexual assault charges against Nassar and Van Horn, a trainer who worked at his side at the Karolyi Ranch and also worked at USA Gymnastics for 30 years. She was charged with second-degree sexual assault of a child. The local prosecutor said Van Horn was charged with “acting as a party” with Nassar.

U.S. OLYMPIC COMMITTEE

— Scott Blackmun: The CEO resigned in February, citing difficulties with prostate cancer and the federation’s need to move forward to deal with the sexual abuse scandal. There had been calls for his departure.

— Alan Ashley: The USOC fired the chief of sport performance last month in the wake of an independent report that said neither he nor Blackmun elevated concerns about the Nassar allegations when they were first reported to them.

 

Reports: Denis Ten’s killers sentenced

AP
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Sochi Olympic bronze medalist Denis Ten died on July 19 in his home city of Almaty, Kazakhstan, after being stabbed by robbers attempting to vandalize his car. Ten died after being brought to the hospital for two stab wounds to the femoral artery. He was 25.

Those suspects, reports said Thursday, were sentenced to 18 years in a penal colony.

Arman Kudaibergenov and Nurali Kiyasov, both in their 20s, were found guilty in his death while a woman, Zhanar Tolybayeva, was sentenced to four years for failing to report the event to authorities and withholding information.

Ten’s family has said through their lawyer they believe the murder was pre-planned and Ten may have been lured to that location. So far, nothing in the investigation indicates that.

Ten was a three-time Olympian, most recently finishing 27th in PyeongChang. He also silver and bronze medals at the world championships in 2013 and 2015. He struggled in the lead-up to the 2018 Winter Olympics but wanted to compete because he was of South Korean descent. His great-grandfather fought for South Korean independence and is depicted in a statue in Wonjnu, about 35 miles from PyeongChang.

MORE: Kaitlyn Weaver, Andrew Poje debut free dance tribute to Denis Ten

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