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As baseball returns to the Olympics, remembering the U.S.’ unlikely gold-medal team

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By Edith Noriega

Next summer in Tokyo, baseball and softball will not only appear on the Olympic program for the first time in 12 years, but it will also mark the 20th anniversary of an unlikely U.S. baseball gold-medal journey.

Outfielder turned financial adviser Mike Neill, second baseman Brent Abernathy, who now runs a life insurance business out of Fort Walton Beach, Fla., and Ernie Young, an outfielder who is now on the Board of Directors of USA Baseball, recently reflected on that team and that time.

While Young’s MLB career spanned 10 years with six different clubs, Neill’s big-league experience lasted all but five days and Abernathy’s MLB debut didn’t come until until a year after the Sydney Games.

The 22 others on the roster ranged from adversity stricken major leaguers to rising minor leaguers, many largely unknowns beyond ardent baseball fans. But their manager, Los Angeles Dodgers legend Tommy Lasorda, believed in them before their 7,000-mile trek to Australia.

How was it like being coached under Lasorda, who displayed such a colorful personality during the Olympics?

Abernathy: “Tommy has a bigger-than-life personality, and we needed that. It wasn’t like he was coaching us on a day-to-day basis, but we needed that personality because we were a group of guys who didn’t know each other. We were coming together for a three-week period, and so we didn’t know what we were getting into. We needed that relief, and that was one thing Tommy did. I’ll never forget being in San Diego, and we had a workout the day before we flew to Australia. He sat us all down in front of the clubhouse … and basically said, ‘Nobody expects you guys to go over there and win, but by god we’re not coming back here without anything other than the gold medal.'”

Getting that call to join Team USA, did you ever envision yourself being an Olympian?

Young: “At that time, I was in triple-A with the Cardinals and ended up having an incredible season. They (scouts) asked if I wanted to go and play in the Olympics, and I said of course. I never ever imagined that I would play or compete in the Olympics, so for me it was better than playing in the major leagues.”

Abernathy: “It gave me a different sense of confidence, not only being a part of that team but playing well, and I think it was such a huge key to our success in the team is every single person impacted and had a part in us winning the gold medal.”

Where do you keep your gold medal, and what does it mean to you almost 20 years later?

Young: “Safe deposit box. There are several people that know where it’s located, but it’s something that I definitely cherish and don’t ever want something to happen to it that’s a prize possession.”

Neill: “I just have it in a backpack in a closet somewhere. What I do is, every anniversary I break it out, put it on and wear it around and have a couple beers. I’ve done a couple (talks) recently for Villanova students, so I’ll bring it out then. If they ask me to go for opening day at certain little leagues or high schools I’ll bring it then.”

What do you hope to see in Tokyo 2020, and what should be done to help keep baseball and softball in the Olympics?

Editor’s Note: Baseball and softball was only voted back onto the Olympic program for 2020. They will not be contested at the 2024 Paris Games. It will likely be up to Los Angeles Olympic organizers whether they will be on the 2028 program.

Young: “In about six or eight weeks I’m going to go to South Africa to do a coach’s clinic with an organization. I’ve gone to Germany to do a coach’s clinic, so just trying to grow the sport is going to keep it in the Olympics.”

Abernathy: “I hated to see the sport get dropped out of the Olympics. When you experience something like we experienced, you want other people to feel the same thing. You want another U.S. team to be able to be in that position and come out ahead and remind people that baseball is our pastime.”

Does baseball ever come in handy or overlap in your new career?

Abernathy: “It does, maybe not intentionally, but the credibility when you look at anybody whether it’s baseball or any sort of business. If somebody’s had success in the past in another industry or another minor profession, then it has some sort of drive they know what it takes to succeed. My past with baseball, the Olympic team and the gold medal, it lends ability to me as a professional in my line of work now because people know that I am a dedicated type of person, and I don’t settle for mediocrity.”

Young: “I’m still involved with USA Baseball the past few years because we didn’t have a professional team to compete in a tournament. So probably the last three years I’ve done things with our 17U development program just to stay involved.”

Neill: “Unfortunately I follow the stock market instead of watching ESPN. I’m watching Bloomberg or CNBC now .It’s just a different world. Good friend of mine got me a bobblehead of Ben Sheets [who blanked Cuba in the gold-medal game and then had a successful MLB career, largely with the Milwaukee Brewers]. It’s on my mantle. So, every time I walk by him I’m like, thank you, Benny. Then I call or text him every anniversary day, and I send him a picture of his own bobblehead and say, ‘Thank you for the gold.’”

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David Rudisha escapes car crash ‘well and unhurt’

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David Rudisha, a two-time Olympic champion and world record holder at 800m, is “well and unhurt” after a car accident in his native Kenya, according to his Facebook account.

Kenyan media reported that one of Rudisha’s tires burst on Saturday night, leading his car to collide with a bus, and he was treated for minor injuries at a hospital.

Rudisha, 30, last raced July 4, 2017, missing extended time with a quad muscle strain and back problems. His manager said last week that Rudisha will miss next month’s world championships.

Rudisha owns the three fastest times in history, including the world record 1:40.91 set in an epic 2012 Olympic final.

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Tokyo Paralympic medals unveiled with historic Braille design, indentations

Tokyo Paralympic Medals
Tokyo 2020
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The Tokyo Paralympic medals, which like the Olympic medals are created in part with metals from recycled cell phones and other small electronics, were unveiled on Sunday, one year out from the Opening Ceremony.

In a first for the Paralympics, each medal has one to three indentation(s) on its side to distinguish its color by touch — one for gold, two silver and three for bronze. Braille letters also spell out “Tokyo 2020” on each medal’s face.

For Rio, different amounts of tiny steel balls were put inside the medals based on their color, so that when shaken they would make distinct sounds. Visually impaired athletes could shake the medals next to their ears to determine the color.

More on the design from Tokyo 2020:

The design is centered around the motif of a traditional Japanese fan, depicting the Paralympic Games as the source of a fresh new wind refreshing the world as well as a shared experience connecting diverse hearts and minds. The kaname, or pivot point, holds all parts of the fan together; here it represents Para athletes bringing people together regardless of nationality or ethnicity. Motifs on the leaves of the fan depict the vitality of people’s hearts and symbolize Japan’s captivating and life-giving natural environment in the form of rocks, flowers, wood, leaves, and water. These are applied with a variety of techniques, producing a textured surface that makes the medals compelling to touch.

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Tokyo Paralympic Medals

Tokyo Paralympic Medals