Skip to content

Remembering the 2000 U.S. Olympic Baseball Team

Apr 2, 2014, 10:14 AM EDT

USA Baseball Getty Images

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 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?

Latest Posts
  1. Wallace Spearmon fails drug test, banned 3 months

    Sep 19, 2014, 2:31 PM EDT

    Wallace Spearmon Getty Images

    Spearmon lost a 2008 Olympic medal due to disqualification and finished fourth in the 2012 Olympic 200m.

  2. Viktoria Komova out of World Gymnastics Championships, report says

    Sep 19, 2014, 10:21 AM EDT

    Viktoria Komova Getty Images

    Komova won Olympic all-around silver behind Gabby Douglas.

  3. South Korea hockey teams given spots in 2018 Olympics

    Sep 19, 2014, 8:49 AM EDT

    South Korea hockey Getty Images

    There was concern Olympic host nation wouldn’t be able to qualify in hockey.

  4. Carolina Kostner skips hearing in ex-boyfriend’s doping case

    Sep 19, 2014, 8:02 AM EDT

    Carolina Kostner Getty Images

    Olympic medalist skater could be called in for later hearing.

  5. Jens Voigt bikes 31.7 miles in 1 hour, breaks record

    Sep 18, 2014, 4:50 PM EDT

    Jens Voigt Getty Images

    Three-time Olympian rides into retirement by entering history books.

  6. Rio Olympic Village more than 50 percent complete

    Sep 18, 2014, 3:06 PM EDT

    Rio Olympic Village

    Work expected to finish in the first half of 2016.

  7. Ato Boldon’s track and field season awards

    Sep 18, 2014, 1:39 PM EDT

    Justin Gatlin Getty Images

    NBC Olympics analyst hands out athlete of the year honors and more.

  8. Yelena Isinbayeva set to return to pole vault training, report says

    Sep 18, 2014, 9:30 AM EDT

    Yelena Isinbayeva Getty Images

    Russian Olympic champion gave birth to daughter in June.

  9. Analyzing the U.S. gymnastics women’s World Championships team

    Sep 18, 2014, 9:00 AM EDT

    Simone Biles, Kyla Ross Getty Images

    Can U.S. win second straight team title despite injuries, absences?

  10. Edmonton Oilers hire Olympic pairs champion as skating coach

    Sep 17, 2014, 3:38 PM EDT

    David Pelletier Getty Images

    Canadian from memorable 2002 Olympic pairs competition to coach NHL players.

  11. Kaitlyn Farrington, Olympic halfpipe champ, eyes slopestyle at Dew Tour

    Sep 17, 2014, 2:13 PM EDT

    Kaitlyn Farrington Getty Images

    Olympic halfpipe champion is focused on two competitions this season.

  12. Curling sculpture unveiled at Olympic Museum (photos)

    Sep 17, 2014, 10:54 AM EDT

    Curling statue

    Curling is the first Winter Olympic sport to have a sculpture in the Olympic Museum park.

  13. Paula Radcliffe set for first race since pulling out of London Olympics

    Sep 17, 2014, 10:38 AM EDT

    Paula Radcliffe Getty Images

    World record holder, now 40, could enter two more major marathons.

  14. Hicham El Guerrouj, King of the Mile, could still run fast at 40

    Sep 17, 2014, 10:04 AM EDT

    Hicham El Guerrouj Getty Images

    Two-time Olympic champion runs five or six times per week.

  15. Shaun White ‘more motivated’ to compete than before Sochi

    Sep 17, 2014, 9:30 AM EDT

    Shaun White Getty Images

    Two-time Olympic halfpipe champion “more poised” for slopestyle success in 2018.

  16. Lolo Jones eliminated from ‘Dancing with the Stars’

    Sep 17, 2014, 8:41 AM EDT

    Lolo Jones Getty Images

    Jones posted she had “flashbacks of the three Olympics and that people constantly tease me about.”

  17. Rio Olympic ticket prices start at about $20 in Brazil

    Sep 16, 2014, 4:10 PM EDT

    Rio 2016

    More than 7.5 million tickets will be available for the Games.

  18. Kohei Uchimura’s mother competes in gymnastics meet

    Sep 16, 2014, 11:35 AM EDT

    Kohei Uchimura Getty Images

    Shuko Uchimura hadn’t competed in some 30 years, according to Japanese report.