- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 28, 2000

SYDNEY, Australia A shocking upset was followed by one even more stunning in Sydney yesterday, and a week of drug scandal and controversy at the Olympics disappeared as a group of unlikely Americans won glory and gold.
A U.S. baseball team made up of prospects, career minor leaguers and major-league castoffs toppled a Cuban dynasty with a 4-0 victory in the gold-medal game at Olympic Park.
Later, Rulon Gardner, a little-known wrestler from Afton, Wyo., did what no one thought possible: beat Russian Alexander Karelin, a three-time defending gold medalist who had not lost in 13 years and is considered the greatest Greco-Roman wrestler of all time.
On Tuesday, Wimbledon and U.S. Open champion Venus Williams of the United States continued her dominance on the tennis courts by winning a gold medal in women's singles.
Williams' victory was predictable, but the baseball team's was anything but.
Manager Tommy Lasorda told his players a group of career minor leaguers and untested prospects thrown together a month ago that nothing was more important than representing the United States in the Olympic Games.
Lasorda told them that nothing they would do in their baseball careers would mean as much as playing for their country because, he said, nothing meant more to him than managing for his country.
They believed it, coming from a man who had managed the Los Angeles Dodgers to two World Series, four National League pennants and eight division titles.
That faith paid off.
"This is bigger than the Dodgers, bigger than the World Series, bigger than major-league baseball," said Lasorda. "We were playing for the United States of America and all the people back home. I am so proud of what this team has done."
What this team had done was bring down a baseball powerhouse that won gold at the 1992 and 1996 Olympics without losing a game. The Cubans had won 19 straight international world championships and 23 of the last 25.
"Nobody thought we could beat the Cubans, but I did," said Lasorda. "Nobody gave us a chance to win here, but sometimes the best team doesn't always win. Sometimes it's the team that plays the hardest and wants it the most. These guys wanted it bad."
Lasorda wanted it bad, too, and he declared when he first arrived in Sydney that he was dedicating his effort to Cuban exiles in the United States.
"I'm very familiar with the whole scene in Cuba. I was there during the revolution," said Lasorda. "I saw the government change hands twice in Cuba. I was playing there in 1952 and in 1959 when Castro came in. And I'm saying this with my whole heart: We want to beat those guys to show all those Cubans that live in Miami and in the United States. We want to beat them for them."
This Cold War had many heroes: Ben Sheets, a 22-year-old minor-league prospect who shut out the Cuban hitters; Ernie Young and Mike Neill, two journeyman who between them have played more than 1,700 minor-league games; and Pat Borders, 37-year-old former World Series Most Valuable Player who started the season playing Class A ball in Durham, N.C.
"This was huge," said Neill, a 30-year-old Martinsville, Va., native who has played more than 10 seasons and nearly quit four years ago. "We were representing our country, the greatest country in the world. It was a great honor."
Young is a 31-year-old outfielder from Chicago who has played with eight minor-league teams in 10 years. He also has played in 280 major-league games over that span. His time likely has come and gone, but he has something no other American major-league players have: an Olympic gold medal.
"If I never played again, I would still cherish this moment forever," he said.
Someone who does have a major-league future is Sheets, a No. 1 draft choice of the Milwaukee Brewers last year. He never gave a chance to the veteran Cuba team a team that crushed the Baltimore Orioles 12-6 at Camden Yards last year holding them to three hits. "This kid has ice water in his veins," Lasorda yelled at the post-game press conference. "He shut out a great Cuban team."
Neill gave the Americans the lead in the top of the first inning with a solo home run. And, in the top of the fifth, the U.S. team put the game away with an RBI double by Borders and a two-run single by Young.
When Young made a sliding catch of a fly ball by Yasser Gomez in left field for the final out, the U.S. players sprinted to the mound and pounced on Sheets. As other players came out of the dugout, Lasorda walked slowly, arm in arm, with Reggie Smith, a player he once managed on the Dodgers and who is now one of the U.S. coaches. When he reached the mound, Lasorda hugged and shook hands with each player.
Then, as the Cubans slowly walked off the field, the U.S. players grabbed several American flags from the stands and took a victory lap around the field. The 14,107 fans at the stadium stood and cheered.
Lasorda later stood with the U.S. flag draped around his shoulders. "I was so proud of those guys," said the 73-year-old Hall of Fame manager. "Everyone said we did not have a good team and didn't have great players. This is a great bunch of guys, and they can play ball."
Lasorda cried as his players received their gold medals, the flag rose and the national anthem played.
"I broke down because of what that flag means to me," he said. "It's a symbol of freedom. Men have died for it."
Very few people expected that flag to be raised. At best, this team's chances were considered bronze, not gold. This was the first year professional players were allowed in Olympic baseball competition. But, with the Olympics taking place while major-league baseball is in its final month of the season, there would be no baseball "Dream Team" such as the National Basketball Association has sent to the games.
Instead, the United States got, save for a handful of young prospects, a team filled with players who likely will never have major-league careers.
But they will, at least, always have one beautiful, golden memory.
"Today, all of America is happy," declared Lasorda.

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