Opening Day

USA Baseball

Remembering the 2000 U.S. Olympic Baseball Team

Leave a comment

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.

Baseball and the Olympics: Ultimate Olympic All-Star Team | Olympians’ Ceremonial First Pitches

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.

source: Getty Images
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

Which U.S. athletes were drug tested the most in 2013?

Olympians throwing ceremonial first pitches, a brief history

Aja Evans
Getty Images
Leave a comment

Olympic bronze medalist bobsledder Aja Evans sought advice before throwing out the first pitch on Opening Day at U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago on Monday.

She knew just the person to ask — her uncle, retired MLB outfielder Gary Matthews — among others. The best advice?

“Aim high,” she said.

Evans got the job done, getting the ball over the plate before the White Sox-Twins game. Other Sochi Olympians were throwing out first pitches this week, including hockey silver medalists Brianna Decker and Jessie Vetter and skeleton bronze medalist Matt Antoine at Miller Park in Milwaukee on Monday.

Olympic ski slopestyle bronze medalist Nick Goepper is slated to throw out the first pitch at the Reds’ first night game Wednesday.

There have been some fabulous and, more memorable, forgettable first pitches by Olympians over time. It is common for Olympic stars to throw first pitches at MLB games shortly after the Summer or Winter Games finish.

The most notable is certainly nine-time Olympic track and field champion Carl Lewis, who has run the gamut in at least three ceremonial first pitches in MLB and NCAA baseball. He bounced the ball to home plate, airmailed another pitch and gave up entirely and sprinted from the pitcher’s mound, as detailed in this video post last year.

One must sympathize the most with artistic gymnasts, who are among the least trained Olympians when it comes to throwing a baseball 60 feet at a strike-zone target.

“Hopefully I’ll make it to the catcher,” 2008 Olympic champion Shawn Johnson once said.

She had trouble doing so at an Iowa Cubs game near her home in Des Moines, Iowa, in 2010, but was respectable when moving in front of the mound for a throw at Dodger Stadium in 2009.

Fierce Five gymnast Jordyn Wieber stepped in front of the mound and made it to home plate on one bounce at a Detroit Tigers game after the 2012 Olympics, doing so with a boot on her right foot due to stress fracture.

Three of Wieber’s teammates, Gabby DouglasMcKayla Maroney and Kyla Ross, threw simultaneous first pitches at Dodger Stadium in 2012. Maroney, the high-flying vault world champion, was the only one to do so from the pitching rubber and clearly had the strongest arm.

The multi-talented eight-time Olympic medalist Apolo Ohno showed a stellar windup and accuracy on this first pitch, also at Dodger Stadium.

Swimmer Jason Lezak looked calm and collected throwing a smooth, but not particularly fast, accurate strike in LA. Another swimmer, Jessica Hardy, risked throwing her pitch while wearing her two 2012 Olympic medals.

Ice dancing silver medalist Ben Agosto received a perfect score from the judges, according to the stadium announcer, for his first pitch at Safeco Field in 2012.

Even Yuna Kim has thrown out a first pitch, at a South Korean baseball game while wearing a “2018” jersey for the Pyeongchang Olympics.

Three-time Olympic basketball champion Diana Taurasi was just a bit outside on a throw at Chase Field.

“A little wild thing,” Taurasi said. “I wanted to throw it with a little heat.”

Then there are the quirky first pitches we saw out of South Korea last year — rhythmic gymnast Shin Soo-ji‘s whirligig pitch that has received more than 11 million YouTube views and 2012 gold medalist archer Ki Bo-bae, who made a mascot whiff with a bow-and-arrow pitch.

The 25 best MLB players to compete in the Olympics

The Olympic All-Star baseball team

Ben Sheets
Leave a comment

Baseball may no longer be in the Olympics, but several MLB stars double as Olympians.

Baseball rosters at the Olympics, an official sport since 1992, included many great collegians and minor-league players for the U.S. as well as some surprisingly strong international names.

Here’s one man’s Olympic baseball All-Star team, choosing 25 players from the five Olympic baseball tournaments who went onto notable MLB careers, with statistics via sports-reference.com. This list does not include players from when baseball was a demonstration sport in the Olympics, such as 1984 or 1988.

Catcher
Charles Johnson, U.S. (1992)
Jason Varitek, U.S. (1992)

Varitek and Johnson were teammates on the 1992 U.S. Olympic Team, the first Games that included baseball as an official sport. The U.S. finished 5-2 in eight-team group play but lost its last two games — to Cuba in the semifinals and Japan in the bronze-medal game — to finish fourth.

They split time behind the plate. Johnson batted .294 over six games, while Varitek hit .286. Johnson, then 21, had just finished his career at the University of Miami. Varitek, then 19, was at Georgia Tech.

Varitek went on to make three All-Star teams over a 15-year MLB career with the Boston Red Sox. Johnson made two All-Star teams and won four Gold Gloves in a 12-year career with the Florida Marlins, Los Angeles Dodgers, Chicago White Sox, Baltimore Orioles and Colorado Rockies.

Honorable Mention: Pat Borders, U.S. (2000); Kenji Johjima, Japan (2004); Dave Nilsson, Australia (2000, 2004).

source: Getty Images
Doug Mientkiewicz (Getty Images).

Infield
1B — Jason Giambi, U.S. (1992)
2B — Tadahito Iguchi, Japan (1996)
SS — Nomar Garciaparra, U.S. (1992)
3B — Troy Glaus, U.S. (1996)
1B/3B — Doug Mientkiewicz, U.S. (2000)
2B/SS — Alexei Ramirez, Cuba (2004)

Giambi and Garciaparra joined Varitek and Johnson on the team in Barcelona.

Giambi was coming off a career at Long Beach State and was drafted in the second round by the Oakland Athletics in 1992 as well. He batted .296 in Barcelona, playing in all nine U.S. games and would go on to a 19-year MLB career with the Athletics, New York Yankees, Colorado Rockies and Cleveland Indians, making five All-Star teams and winning an MVP.

Garciaparra, then 19 and embarking on his Georgia Tech career, batted .200 in seven games in Barcelona. He went onto a 14-year MLB career with the Red Sox, Chicago Cubs, Dodgers and Athletics, making six All-Star teams.

Iguchi starred on Japan’s 1996 silver-medal winning team in Atlanta. He batted .405, including a 5-for-5 game and one home run. Iguchi was 21 then and didn’t come over to MLB until 2005, playing four years with the White Sox, Philadelphia Phillies and San Diego Padres.

Glaus was part of the 1996 U.S. team that won bronze at Fulton County Stadium. Glaus hit .219 in nine games, but four of his hits were home runs. He was a four-time All-Star in 13 MLB seasons with the Anaheim Angels, Arizona Diamondbacks, Toronto Blue Jays, St. Louis Cardinals and Atlanta Braves.

Mientkiewicz, then 26, was a star of the 2000 Olympics coming off his Triple-A season in the Minnesota Twins system. His eighth-inning grand slam propelled the U.S. to a 4-0 win over South Korea in group play, and he hit .414 overall as the U.S. won a stunning gold with Tommy Lasorda at the helm. He compiled a 12-year MLB career, which began in 1998, with seven teams.

Ramirez was 22 when he played in the 2004 Athens Olympics for Cuba, which won gold losing one game all tournament. He hit .278 in nine games in Athens and is about to start his seventh MLB season with the White Sox with a career batting average of .277.

Honorable Mention: Travis Lee, U.S. (1996); Phil Nevin, U.S. (1992); Brett Lawrie, Canada (2008).

source: Getty Images
Nick Markakis (right) (Getty Images).

Outfield
Jeffrey Hammonds, U.S. (1992)
Jacque Jones, U.S. (1996)
Mark Kotsay, U.S. (1996)
Nick Markakis, Greece (2004)
Brad Wilkerson, U.S. (2000)

Hammonds was the fourth overall pick by the Orioles in 1992 out of Stanford before going to Barcelona. He lived up to that hype in the Olympics, hitting .432 with base knocks in all nine games for the fourth-place U.S. He made one All-Star team in a 13-year MLB career with six teams.

Jones and Kotsay were both collegiate players in California and drafted by MLB teams in the first two rounds in 1996. Jones hit .395 with five home runs at the Olympics, while Kotsay went .273 with three homers. They both went onto long MLB careers scattered among different clubs but made no All-Star teams.

Markakis, born and raised in New York and Georgia, was part of a Greek team at the Athens Olympics that included players who had Greek heritage. He hit .346 for Greece, which went 1-6, and also pitched in two games. A 2003 first-round pick of the Baltimore Orioles, Markakis is going into his ninth MLB season.

Wilkerson, a collegiate star at Florida, made the 2000 U.S. Olympic Team while coming up through the Montreal Expos minor-league system. He hit .216 in nine games in Sydney, made his MLB debut in 2001 and played eight years in the majors.

Honorable Mention: Dexter Fowler, U.S. (2008); Kosuke Fukudome, Japan (1996, 2004); So Taguchi, Japan (2000); Michael Tucker, U.S. (1992).

source: Getty Images
Stephen Strasburg (Getty Images).

Pitchers
Jose Contreras, Cuba (1996, 2000)
Yu Darvish, Japan (2008)
R.A. Dickey, U.S. (1996)
Orlando Hernandez, Cuba (1992)
Billy Koch, U.S. (1996)
Hiroki Kuroda, Japan (2004)
Daisuke Matsuzaka, Japan (2000, 2004)
Roy Oswalt, U.S. (2000)
Ben Sheets, U.S. (2000)
Stephen Strasburg, U.S. (2008)
Koji Uehara, Japan (2004, 2008)
Jeff Weaver, U.S. (1996)

Hernandez and Contreras were two of the first great Cuban players to make it in the majors.

Hernandez gave up four runs in 6 2/3 innings, striking out 10 at the 1992 Olympics as Cuba won gold. El Duque defected before the 1998 MLB season and pitched nine years in the majors.

Contreras’ two Olympics included complete-game shutouts of Japan and Australia in Sydney in 2000. He defected before the 2003 season and played through 2013, making one All-Star team.

Darvish, Kuroda and Matsuzaka have seen varying results as starters in the majors after playing for Japan at the Olympics. Darvish, second in last season’s Cy Young voting with the Texas Rangers, had the worst Olympic ERA of the trio — 5.14 in seven innings in 2008. Kuroda allowed no runs in 2004, striking out 13 over nine innings in three combined appearances. Matsuzaka pitched at least 7 2/3 innings in all five of his Olympic appearances, striking out 45 batters over 43 innings with a 2.09 ERA.

Dickey, the 2012 NL Cy Young winner, pitched in the 1996 Olympics after finishing his NCAA career at Tennessee. He won in both of his appearances in Atlanta in U.S. routs en route to bronze.

Oswalt and Sheets were anchors on the memorable 2000 U.S. Olympic gold-medal team. Oswalt threw six innings of two-run ball to beat South Korea in the semifinals, and Sheets blanked Cuba in the gold-medal game. Both went on to All-Star MLB careers.

Strasburg pitched for Team USA in the final Olympic baseball tournament in 2008 while in the middle of his San Diego State career. He one-hit the Netherlands in group play and got the call against mighty Cuba in the semifinals. He gave up two earned runs over four innings in a 10-2 loss, but the U.S. bounced back for bronze.

Honorable Mention: Masahiro Tanaka, Japan (2008); Chien-Ming Wang, Taiwan (2004).

Ultimate Olympic NCAA Tournament bracket