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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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Naomi Osaka, Coco Gauff set Australian Open duel

Naomi Osaka, Coco Gauff
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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Plenty was going badly for Coco Gauff in the second round of the Australian Open.

The double-faults kept coming Wednesday, nine in all. The deficits, too: First, she dropped the opening set against 74th-ranked Sorana Cirstea.

Then, after forcing a third, Gauff fell behind by a break, ceding 14 of 16 points with a series of mistakes. Later, after getting even at 3-all, Gauff was a mere two points from a loss.

None of that mattered. As she keeps showing, over and over, Gauff is not a typical 15-year-old. Not a typical tennis player, either.

And by getting past Cirstea 4-6, 6-3, 7-5 in a little more than two hours thanks to a more aggressive approach in the late going, she now has set up yet another Grand Slam showdown against Naomi Osaka.

AUSTRALIAN OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women

“I kind of felt the momentum changing,” Gauff said about turning things around against Cirstea. “I knew I had to keep pressing.”

Less than five months after their memorable meeting at the U.S. Open — Osaka won that one in straight sets, then consoled a crying Gauff on court and encouraged her to address the spectators — the two will face each other again. Like that time, Osaka is the major’s reigning champion and Gauff is making her debut at the tournament.

“I think I’ll be less nervous this time,” said Gauff, who eliminated seven-time Grand Slam champion Venus Williams in the first round Monday. “I think I’m more confident this time around.”

As for what sticks with her about the post-match comforting Osaka offered in New York, Gauff said: “If I had a child or something, that’s something I would want my child to see. It just shows what being a competitor really is. You might hate the person on the court, but off the court you love them — not really, like, ‘hate,’ but you want to win. Sometimes when we’re on the court, we say things we don’t mean because we have that mentality. When it’s all said and done, we still look at each other with respect.”

Other winners included Serena Williams — 6-2, 6-3 against Tamara Zidansek in a match that finished with the Rod Laver Arena retractable roof closed because of rain — No. 1 Ash Barty, 2018 Australian Open champion Caroline Wozniacki and two-time major champion Petra Kvitova, the runner-up to Osaka in Australia a year ago.

Defending men’s champion Novak Djokovic required all of 95 minutes to breeze past Japanese wild-card entry Tatsuma Ito 6-1, 6-4, 6-2, while Roger Federer swept Filip Krajinovic 6-1, 6-4, 6-1.

Gauff was not at her very best on a windy afternoon against Cirstea but managed to figure her way out of trouble repeatedly. Gauff demonstrated plenty of grit, yes, and also enthusiasm, pumping herself up by shaking a fist and yelling, “Come on!” after most of her successful points down the stretch.

All the while, Gauff was supported by a Melbourne Arena crowd that chanted, “Let’s go, Coco! Let’s go!”

Her father, Corey, was animated in the stands, too, except when he was squeezing his eyes shut at critical moments.

There were several of those for his precocious daughter, who was ranked only 313th last year when she became the youngest player in history to qualify for Wimbledon, then wound up beating Williams there en route to the fourth round.

It is a measure of her came-so-soon stardom that Gauff was playing at Melbourne Park’s third-largest stadium Wednesday, even though this was a matchup between a pair of players ranked outside the top 60 and with one career Grand Slam quarterfinal between them, more than a decade ago (Cirstea made it that far at the 2009 French Open).

Indeed, every Grand Slam singles match — “every” being a relative term, of course, because this was No. 9 — of the 67th-ranked Gauff’s nascent career has been placed on a show court.

This was the first main draw match at a major for Gauff in which she held a better ranking than her opponent.

Didn’t seem that way at the outset: Gauff dropped the first set. After forcing things to a third, she trailed 3-0. After making it 3-3, Gauff needed to get through one more gut-check: Twice, she was two points from departing.

But the American teenager broke in the next-to-last game, then held to win.

How did Gauff get through this test?

“Just my will to win,” she said. “My parents, they always told me I can come back, no matter what the score is.”

Osaka worked through some frustrations Wednesday by grabbing her racket with both hands and chucking it to the ground, tossing away a tennis ball and kicking the racket along the court, to boot.

Then she plopped herself down on her sideline seat and draped a towel over her head. Soon, she was gathering herself and defeating Zheng Saisai 6-2, 6-4.

“I mean, my racket just magically flew out of my hand. I couldn’t control it,” Osaka said with a mischievous smile. “I think that’s how I dealt with my frustration. It was a bit childish. I just want to play one match without throwing my racket or kicking it. That’s all I want.”

Perhaps because her news conference took place while Gauff and Cirstea were still playing, Osaka deflected a question seeking some sort of lookahead to the third round, saying simply she would go watch the end of that match.

MORE: Another top U.S. tennis player cools on Olympics

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John Isner leaning toward skipping Olympics again

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John Isner, the highest-ranked U.S. male singles tennis player, is considering skipping the Olympics for a second straight time.

“I haven’t put a ton of thought into it, but as of right now, I think I’m leaning towards not playing,” the 19th-ranked player said at the Australian Open on Tuesday. “It’s about scheduling. I know the Olympics, it’s a fantastic honor. There’s no doubt about that. … Right now, at this stage in my career, it’s not a huge priority for me. So that’s probably the main reason I won’t be going. I certainly love playing in the summer in America, and I’m going to focus on that.”

The Tokyo Games take place the same week as a lower-level ATP Tour event in Atlanta that Isner, a former University of Georgia star, has won five times.

Other notable male players already said they will pass on Tokyo, including Sam Querrey, the top American in Olympic qualifying standings.

Austrian Dominic Thiem, a two-time French Open finalist, is prioritizing an ATP event in Kitzbühel the week of the Olympics. The U.S. doubles team of Bob and Mike Bryan are not planning to play the Olympics in their final season before retirement, their manager said in November.

“The Olympics is very tough on the schedule … especially with Davis Cup,” Isner said in 2016, according to USA Today. “I think the fact that they have no [ATP ranking] points [at the Olympics], to be honest, was a pretty big factor as well. Obviously the Olympics is not about the money, but no points I think hindered me a bit.”

Isner, who turns 35 on April 26, is likely giving up his last chance to play Olympic singles. In his only Olympic participation, he reached the quarterfinals of the 2012 London Games, plus lost an opening-round doubles match there with Andy Roddick.

The top four U.S. men qualify for Tokyo, assuming they are among the top 60 overall qualifiers (maximum four per country) after this spring’s French Open.

Taylor FritzReilly Opelka, Steve Johnson and Tommy Paul are the U.S. men currently in Olympic qualifying position if excluding Querrey and Isner.

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