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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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Carreira, Ponomarenko understand the depth of U.S. ice dance at nationals

Carreira and Ponomarenko
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GREENSBORO, N.C. Heading into the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Greensboro this week, up-and-coming ice dancers Christina Carreira and Anthony Ponomarenko focused on their “quads” not four-revolution jumps, but still pretty tough to execute.

“(Our coaches) have us doing double run-through weeks, triple run-throughs, even quadruple run-throughs, to make sure we’re fully ready,” Carreira said. “We’re drilling a lot more, so at nationals we go in 100 percent confident.”

Pasquale Camerlengo, who trains the team along with primary coach Igor Shpilband, agreed that the run-up to Greensboro has been grueling for the skaters from Novi, Mich.

“We always plan a week we call the quads, performing (programs) four times,” Camerlengo said. “We’re trying to make them ready physically and work their stamina, to handle their programs in competition, which is a little bit different than in practice. Physically, they’re ready for it.”

Tough practices are just one component of what’s been a challenging but productive sophomore senior season for the two-time world junior medalists, fifth in the U.S. in 2019.

Thus far, they’ve competed at six international competitions, stretching from Lake Placid, N.Y., in August to NHK Trophy in Sapporo, Japan, in late November. Six is a lot, considering other top teams they’ll compete against in Greensboro have competed three to five times so far this season.

“Igor wants to get more experience at the senior level, and also more world points,” Carreira, 19, said. “For that we have to compete. We get out there and compete as much as we can, so our programs feel more trained.”

Those programs – a rhythm dance to Cole Porter’s “It’s Too Darn Hot” and flamenco free dance to “Farrucas” – stretch their abilities far more than last season’s routines. Competing every two weeks or so left little time to make adjustments, so the past six weeks were the key to their preparation for Greensboro.

“We pushed a lot of changes we needed to make until after NHK, to smooth out the programs and really train them,” Ponomarenko, 18, said.

He added that the grueling first half of 2019-20 was a necessary ice dance rite of passage.

“It’s very different from our first season. We really didn’t know what to expect. Now we kind of know where we’re at and how we can improve. We definitely feel the sophomore slump this year, but we just want to compete and keep putting our good performances.”

On paper, Carreira and Ponomarenko’s 2018 Grand Prix results – which included a bronze medal at Rostelecom Cup – look more impressive than the sixth-place finishes they earned at Skate America and NHK this season. But the skaters don’t think the placements tell the full story.

“Last season, results-wise, it might have looked better, because a lot of (top) teams took the Grand Prix season off last season,” Carreira said. “This season, I feel our programs are more difficult and we’re skating better. We want to improve our consistency so that we can compete with the top teams.”

It doesn’t take much to lose points in an ice dance routine, especially on step sequences and “twizzles,” a series of fast rotations moving across the ice. A few slips here – including a small mistake on their twizzles in the rhythm dance at Skate America – can easily drop teams out of the top group.

“They always have the feeling they could do more,” Camerlengo said. “But the season is a progression. They’re getting better and better. That’s the goal, to have them (be) more reliable.”

“They need to do what they’re capable of,” he added. “They just have to do what they’ve learned, with no fear, and just go for it.”

In Greensboro, Carreira and Ponomarenko will have to throw caution to the wind to grab one of the three U.S. ice dance spots at the 2020 World Figure Skating Championships in Montreal this March.

With Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue, and Madison Chock and Evan Bates, very likely battling for gold, the Michigan skaters have their sights set on bronze. It’s a herculean task, considering the reigning U.S. bronze medalists, Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, qualified for the Grand Prix Final last season and notched career-best scores at Skate Canada this fall.

All three of those teams train together in Montreal. 

But Carreira and Ponomarenko think their programs, strengthened by adjustments and all of those quadruple run-throughs, give them a fighting chance.

“(A bronze medal) is more realistic now than last season,” Carreira said.

“I believe we’ve really grown as skaters,” Ponomarenko said. “Our programs are much more difficult, which has really helped us improve. I believe the podium at nationals is very reasonable. It could be achieved with some good skating.”

Other teams could be in the mix. Last season, Lorraine McNamara and Quinn Carpenter placed a strong fourth, but injuries forced them to withdraw from one of their Grand Prix events this fall. A new pairing, Caroline Green and Michael Parsons, has gelled quickly, winning two medals at Challenger Series international events.

“The level of U.S. ice dance level is high, the depth in the U.S. is really the top worldwide,” Camerlengo said. “But the podium, it is reasonable for Christina and Anthony. They have been working hard and they have a very good level to fight for the medal. We’ll see how they will perform here. They’re ready for it.”

Not all of the team’s challenges are on the ice. The Montreal-born Carreira – who has lived and trained in Novi since she was 13 – faces hurdles gaining her U.S. citizenship, without which the couple cannot compete at the Olympics. Last May, she petitioned U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to be deemed an “alien with extraordinary ability” under the immigration code, which would help smooth the way for legal permanent residency status. She was denied and filed suit against the USCIS, later dropping the action.

Carreira is still working to achieve a pathway to U.S. citizenship and prefers not to discuss the issue.

“I can’t really say anything,” she said. “We’re working on it, we’re hoping for the best.”

Citizenship issues never entered the skaters’ minds when they teamed up in the spring of 2014. Ponomarenko and his parents, 1988 Olympic ice dance champions Marina Klimova and Sergei Ponomarenko, had long admired Carreira’s skating. When he and his former partner Sarah Feng split after the 2014 U.S. Championships, he tried out with Carreira in Novi.

“We really worked well together from the beginning,” Ponomarenko said. “I had wanted to skate with Christina for a really long time even before getting together, so it was no-brainer. The bump in the road (citizenship) can be worked through.”

“There were so many good factors it would be, I think, stupid to let something that can be fixed get in the way of (our partnership),” Carreira said. “We didn’t even think about it.”

The ice dance competition in Greensboro kicks off with the rhythm dance on Friday afternoon, with medalists decided with the free dance on Saturday night.

MORE: 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships TV, live stream schedule

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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Coronavirus forces Olympic soccer and boxing qualifiers to move

women's soccer
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KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Olympic qualifying events in two sports were moved from the Chinese city of Wuhan on Wednesday because of an outbreak of a deadly viral illness.

A four-nation Asian qualifying group for the women’s soccer tournament was switched from the city at the center of the health scare to Nanjing.

The Asia-Oceania boxing qualifying tournament scheduled for Feb. 3-14 in Wuhan was cancelled. No new plans were announced.

The decisions followed Chinese health authorities telling people in Wuhan to avoid crowds and public gatherings.

The Asian Football Confederation said the round-robin group — featuring host China, Australia, Taiwan and Thailand — will be played on Feb. 3-9, retaining the same dates, in Nanjing.

More than 500 people have been infected and at least 17 killed since the outbreak emerged last month. The illness comes from a newly identified type of coronavirus.

Cases have also been reported in the United States, Japan, South Korea and Thailand. All involve people from Wuhan or who recently traveled there.

In the soccer qualifiers in China, two teams advance to a four-nation playoff round in March. That will decide which two teams from Asia join host Japan at the Tokyo Olympics.

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