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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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MORE: USA Baseball turns to familiar MLB manager to lead Olympic qualifying

Danielle Perkins is first U.S. boxer to win world title in 3 years

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Danielle Perkins became the U.S.’ first world champion boxer in this Olympic cycle, taking the heavyweight crown in Russia on Sunday.

Perkins, a 37-year-old who played college basketball at George Mason and St. John’s, improved from bronze in 2018 to earn her first world title, blanking defending world champion Yang Xiaoli of China 5-0 in Sunday’s final.

Video of the bout is here.

Perkins was slated to fight Yang in the 2018 World semifinals but withdrew due to medical reasons, according to USA Boxing.

The heavyweight division is 81+kg, but the heaviest Olympic weight division is capped at 75kg.

The last American to earn a world title was Claressa Shields in 2016, before she repeated as Olympic champion in Rio and moved to the professional ranks.

The Olympic trials are in December in Louisiana, after which winners will fight internationally in early 2020 in bids to qualify for the Tokyo Games.

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MORE: IOC strips Olympic status from boxing body AIBA

Brigid Kosgei shatters marathon world record in Chicago

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Kenyan Brigid Kosgei shattered a 16-year-old world record in the women’s marathon by 81 seconds, winning the Chicago Marathon in 2:14:04 on Sunday.

Brit Paula Radcliffe had held the record of 2:15:25 set at the 2003 London Marathon. Kenyan Mary Keitany holds the female-only record of 2:17:01 from the 2017 London Marathon. Both Kosgei and Radcliffe, the only women to break 2:17, ran with men in their record races.

Radcliffe’s record was the longest-standing for the men’s or women’s marathon of the last 50 years.

Kosgei did it one day after Eliud Kipchoge became the first person to run a sub-two-hour marathon in a non-record-eligible event in Vienna. She won by a gaping 6 minutes, 47 seconds over Ethiopian Ababel Yeshaneh.

Kosgei, who won Chicago in 2018 and the London Marathon in April, came in highly favored. The 25-year-old tuned up with the fastest half-marathon ever by a woman (by 23 seconds) on Sept. 8 on a non-record-eligible course.

“2:10 is possible for a lady,” Kosgei said after Sunday’s record.

Jordan Hasay, the top U.S. woman in the field, stopped after feeling a sharp hamstring strain after two miles. Hasay, who was coached by Alberto Salazar before his ban in a U.S. Anti-Doping Agency case, is one of several women in contention for the three Olympic spots at the Feb. 29 trials in Atlanta.

Kenyan Lawrence Cherono won the men’s race by one second over Ethiopian Dejene Debela in 2:05:45.

The U.S.’ top marathoner, Galen Rupp, dropped out around mile 23 after straining a calf around the sixth mile. Rupp, who was also coached by Salazar, was racing for the first time since the 2018 Chicago Marathon and Achilles surgery.

Mo Farah, the defending champion and four-time Olympic track gold medalist, finished eighth in 2:09:58. He also dropped from the leaders before the halfway point.

American Daniel Romanchuk and Swiss Manuela Schar won the wheelchair races.

Romanchuk, 21, repeated as champion. He has also won Boston London and New York City in the last year. Schar distanced decorated American Tatyana McFadden by 4:14, though McFadden did qualify for the Tokyo Paralympics with her runner-up finish (as did Romanchuk).

The fall major marathon season concludes with the New York City Marathon on Nov. 3, featuring defending champions Mary Keitany and Lelisa Desisa and 2018 Boston Marathon champion Des Linden.

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MORE: Chicago Marathon results