baseball

Getty Images

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

Leave a comment

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.’”

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

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

Joe Girardi to manage U.S. baseball in Olympic qualifying, 35 years after missing Olympic team

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Joe Girardi, a longtime MLB catcher and former New York Yankees manager, will be at the helm as the U.S. tries to qualify for the first Olympic baseball tournament since 2008.

Girardi will manage at the World Baseball Softball Confederation Premier12 in November, 35 years after he was among the last cuts for the 1984 Olympic team when baseball was a demonstration sport.

B.J. Surhoff wound up being the starting catcher,” Girardi said, according to MLB.com. “That was a wise choice on their part. I still remember seeing all those great players there. I was disappointed that I didn’t make the team, but I understood.”

Two nations from the 12-team field — the top finisher from the Americas and the top finisher from Asia/Oceania — will become the first 2020 Olympic baseball qualifiers, joining automatic entry host Japan.

If the U.S. fails to grab that spot at Premier12, it can still qualify at a last-chance Americas tournament in February.

Girardi is not guaranteed to be the U.S. manager at the Olympics, should the Americans qualify. The last two U.S. Olympic managers were Davey Johnson in 2008 and Tommy Lasorda in 2000.

The U.S. baseball team for Premier12 is expected to be made up of minor-leaguers. The same is expected for a 2020 Olympic team, though the selection process hasn’t been announced. MLB has never interrupted its season or sent players from 25-man rosters to the Olympics.

No players from MLB 40-man rosters are eligible for Premier12, according to USA Baseball.

The 2020 Olympic field will include six nations, down from eight at the 2008 Beijing Games, the last Olympics for baseball and softball as they were voted off the Olympic program.

Baseball and softball will not be on the 2024 Paris Olympic program but could return for the 2028 Los Angeles Games.

The U.S. earned three medals at the five Olympic baseball tournaments from 1992 through 2008, including gold in 2000. Its alumni include Stephen StrasburgJason Giambi and Nomar Garciaparra.

In 1984, the U.S. roster included Mark McGwire, Barry Larkin and Will Clark.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Tokyo Olympics to feature new sports, return of baseball, softball in 2020

Tokyo Olympics to feature new sports, return of baseball, softball in 2020

Leave a comment

A look at new sports and new events with one year to the Tokyo Games, which will have the most sports (33) and events (339) in Olympic history …

New Sports
Baseball/Softball
Not entirely “new.” Baseball and softball were on the Olympic program in the 1990s and 2000s, but voted off following the 2008 Beijing Games. This could be the sports’ lone return to the Games. Baseball and softball were not proposed by Paris 2024 organizers, and it remains to be seen what will happen for Los Angeles 2028. It appears that MLB players will not take part (as it was in baseball’s previous Olympic appearances), but two U.S. Olympic softball stars of the past are hoping to get back to the Games — pitchers Monica Abbott and Cat Osterman.

Karate
Like baseball and softball, karate is not on the Olympic program beyond Tokyo. With modern origins in Japan in the early 1900s, the eight medal events should draw a crowd. There will be three weight classes per gender in the head-to-head fighting discipline of kumite, plus one men’s and one women’s division in kata, which is performed individually.

Skateboarding
The latest X Games sport to join the Olympic program. Skateboarding will feature two disciplines — street and park for men and women. Three-time Olympic snowboard halfpipe champion Shaun White showed interest in trying to qualify, but he has competed just once and that was last summer. Instead, teenagers and even preteens have taken up most of the early headlines, including Sky Brown, an 11-year-old, Japanese-born British athlete who would be the youngest Olympian since 1992.

Sport Climbing
This is not Alex Honnold free soloing El Capitan, but it already has Olympic roots from the Youth Summer Games. One set of medals will be awarded per gender, combining three disciplines: lead, speed, and bouldering. From Tokyo 2020: Speed climbing pits two climbers against each other, both climbing a fixed route on a 15-meter wall at a 95-degree angle. Winning times are generally between five and eight seconds. In bouldering, climbers scale a number of fixed routes on a four-meter wall in a specified time without safety ropes. In lead climbing, athletes attempt to climb as high as possible on a wall measuring over 15 meters in height within a fixed time with safety ropes.

Surfing
The U.S. has a chance to rack up medals here, given it currently boasts the world’s top-ranked man (Kolohe Andino) and woman (Carissa Moore). Icon Kelly Slater, the 47-year-old, 11-time world champion, is in position to qualify but is unsure if he wants to fulfill all the eligibility requirements. The “father of surfing” is actually an Olympian — five-time swimming medalist Duke Kahanamoku, who asked the IOC to consider adding surfing to the Games a century ago.

Notable New Events
Basketball: 3×3
The format: Games last 10 minutes, or until one team scores 21 points. Games are played on a half-court with a 12-second shot clock, and offense immediately turns to defense after a team scores. Former Purdue star Robbie Hummel just led the U.S. men to a world title and is favored to be part of the four-man Olympic team given it’s highly unlikely NBA players will take part.

Swimming/Track and Field: Mixed-Gender Relays
Mixed-gender events make Olympic debuts in two of the Games’ marquee sports. In swimming, a mixed 4x100m medley is on the program. Mixed relays debuted at the world championships in 2015, and this extra event could help American Caeleb Dressel approach Michael Phelps‘ record eight gold medals at a single Games. In track and field, a mixed 4x400m is slated for the first two days of the competition schedule, before the individual 400m.

NBC Olympic Research contributed to this report.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Tokyo 2020 master competition schedule