Tommy Lasorda

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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

Fifteen memorable moments from Sydney 2000 Olympics

Cathy Freeman
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On the 15th anniversary of the Opening Ceremony of the Sydney Olympics, here are 15 chronological memories:

Sept. 15 — Cathy Freeman lights Olympic cauldron

The cauldron lighting proved one of the most poignant in Olympic history, with World 400m champion Cathy Freeman being handed the torch after a final relay in the stadium with all female torchbearers, marking 100 years of women’s participation at the Olympics.

The choice of Freeman was also noteworthy as she’s Aboriginal. She was recently reunited with the suit she wore on Sept. 15, 2000, after it disappeared from her dressing room after she took it off later that night.

Sept. 16 — Australians smash the Americans like guitars in 4x100m relay

Perhaps the most anticipated U.S.-Australia showdown came on the first night of medal competition in the men’s 4x100m freestyle relay.

Before the Olympics, outspoken U.S. swimmer Gary Hall Jr. wrote, “We will smash them like guitars,” in an otherwise complimentary piece about Australia and its swimmers.

Hall would anchor the U.S. in the relay, which it had never lost at the Olympics (excluding the boycotted Moscow 1980 Games). He would face Australia’s new superstar, the 17-year-old Ian Thorpe, who earlier that night won the 400m free in world-record time.

Hall outsplit Thorpe on the anchor leg, but Thorpe held on for the win, sending the Sydney Aquatic Centre into a frenzy. Most memorably, bald Michael Klim, who broke the 100m free world record leading off, led an Aussie air guitar strum session after Thorpe touched the wall.

Sept. 18-19 — Michael Phelps’ Olympic debut

It barely made headlines at the time, but the 15-year-old who finished fifth in the 200m butterfly in his first Olympic event would eventually become the most decorated Olympian of all time.

Michael Phelps became the youngest U.S. Olympic swimmer since 1932 in Sydney and showed his youth by taking the wrong athlete credential to the pool and forgetting to tie his swimsuit strings before his first race. But the talent was evident.

“Boy, this guy’s going to be great one day,” NBC Olympics analyst Rowdy Gaines said on the broadcast.

FLASHBACK: Michael Phelps at the Sydney 2000 Olympics

Sept. 19 — Eric the Eel

Equatorial Guinea’s Eric Moussambani captivated the Sydney Aquatic Centre as he swam alone in the first heat of the 100m freestyle. Moussambani struggled to complete the distance, eventually touching the wall in 1:52.72, the slowest time in Olympic history.

Eric the Eel received thunderous applause from the crowd recognizing the Olympic value of not the triumph, but the struggle. Not to conquer, but to take part.

Misty Hyman
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Sept. 20 — Misty upsets Madame Butterfly

The U.S. bettered Australia in the women’s 200m butterfly, when Misty Hyman stunned heavy gold-medal favorite Susie O’Neill. O’Neill, nicknamed “Madame Butterfly,” entered the race as the reigning Olympic and World champion and the world-record holder. So beloved in Australia, the butterfly was referred to as “the Susie stroke.”

Hyman, in her only career Olympic race, summoned an Olympic and American record swim that was .07 off O’Neill’s world record. O’Neill claimed silver, seven tenths of a second behind.

Sept. 21 — Controversial women’s all-around final

It’s a night many gymnastics fans choose not to remember. The women’s all-around final was won by Andreea Raducan in a Romanian podium sweep, which could have been historic.

However, Raducan was stripped of the crown later in the Sydney Games after testing positive for a banned substance from cold-medicine pills given to her by a team doctor. The blame fell on the doctor, and the women who were upgraded in the final medal standings all reportedly said Raducan was the deserving winner.

Also, during the all-around final, it was discovered the vault was set too low. It had to be reset, and all gymnasts who had competed on the faulty apparatus were given the option of re-doing their vaults. Russian Svetlana Khorkina, who had the highest all-around score in qualifying, fell on the mis-measured vault and then again on her trademark apparatus, uneven bars. She chose not to re-do her vault. It wouldn’t have mattered. She finished 10th.

Sept. 22-30 — The drive for five

Marion Jones was the biggest American star of the Games, though she would be stripped of all five of her medals, including golds in the 100m, 200m and 4x400m relay, after a 2007 admission that she used performance-enhancing drugs leading up to Sydney.

Sept. 24 — Laura Wilkinson goes from eighth to gold

Only one non-Chinese won an individual diving title in Sydney. The shocking effort came from Texan Laura Wilkinson.

Wilkinson jumped from eighth place over five final-round dives to become the first U.S. woman in 36 years to take platform gold. She prevailed six months after breaking three middle bones in her right foot, banging it on a piece of plywood used for training. The U.S. would go 12 years before winning another Olympic diving medal.

Sept. 25 — Dunk de la mort

The U.S. men’s basketball team looked human at times during the Games, beating Lithuania by two points in the semifinals and France by 10 in the final. But not Vince Carter in one highlight.

Carter, nicknamed “Half-Man, Half-Amazing,” posterized 7-foot, 2-inch Frederic Weis in a preliminary-round game against the French with a slam that became known as “Dunk de la mort” (Dunk of Death). Weis had been drafted in the first round by the New York Knicks in 1999 but never played in the NBA.

Sept. 25 — U.S. softball completes comeback

The Americans came to Sydney riding a 110-game winning streak, but that was snapped by Japan in group play. The next day, the U.S. lost to China. The day after that, the U.S. lost to Australia.

Pitcher Lisa Fernandez led the team in a cleansing, jumping in the shower together with their uniforms on, in hopes of breaking the curse. It worked. The U.S. won its next five games, including beating China, Australia and Japan in the medal round to repeat as Olympic champion.

Cathy Freeman
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Sept. 25 — Magic Monday

The Olympic cauldron lighter Freeman captured 400m gold in front of a reported more than 110,000 spectators at Stadium Australia as part of perhaps the greatest single day of competition in one sport in Olympic history. Magic Monday, they called it.

Also that night, Michael Johnson won his final individual Olympic race (men’s 400m), Stacy Dragila won the first Olympic women’s pole vault, British world-record holder Jonathan Edwards won his first gold medal in his fourth Olympics and Ethiopian Haile Gebrselassie beat Kenyan rival Paul Tergat by .09 of a second in a furious final sprint in the 10,000m.

9/25/00: Magic Monday at Sydney Olympics

Sept. 27 — Miracle on the Mat

Maybe the biggest gold-medal favorite going into the Olympics was Greco-Roman super-heavyweight wrestler Aleksandr Karelin, who had not lost a match in 13 years and not been scored upon in six.

The chiseled Russian made it to the Sydney final, seeking his fourth straight Olympic gold medal. There, he would be beaten 1-0 by Wyoming farm boy Rulon Gardner, who celebrated by doing a cartwheel and somersault on the mat.

Sept. 27 — Miracle on Grass

The most famous name on the U.S. baseball team of major-league castoffs and minor-league prospects was its manager, Tommy Lasorda.

In the gold-medal game, the Americans shocked Cuba, which had won all 18 of its games en route to gold medals in the first two Olympic baseball tournaments in 1992 and 1996. Ben Sheets pitched a three-hit shutout in a 4-0 victory.

MORE: Remembering the 2000 U.S. Olympic baseball team

Sept. 28 — Best women’s soccer game ever?

In a thrilling gold-medal game, Norway upset the reigning Olympic and World Cup champion U.S. 3-2 with a sudden-death goal in the 102nd minute after the Americans had forced extra time with a stoppage-time score. It’s the only Olympic loss for the U.S. women’s soccer team in five tournaments.

Norway’s Dagny Mellgren scored the winner after a ricocheted ball hit her left arm, causing some to say it merited a handball call.

Oct. 1 — ‘Best Olympic Games ever’

The Closing Ceremony included Greg Norman hitting soft golf balls into the crowd, Paul Hogan as Crocodile Dundee, the Bananas in Pajamas and Elle Macpherson walking a runway on a float resembling a camera.

More memorably, Juan Antonio Samaranch declared Sydney 2000 to be “the best Olympic Games ever” in the closing address of his final Olympics as IOC president.

Remembering the 2000 U.S. Olympic Baseball Team

USA Baseball
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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

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