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Baseball's 'nobodies' strike gold


SYDNEY, Australia - This one's for the minor-leaguers, the real-life Crash Davises, the nameless, faceless dreamers who ply their trades in places such as Columbus, Tacoma and Bowie.

For one night, the nobodies became somebodies. For one night, they owned the baseball world, winning gold medals, sticking American flags on their bat barrels and jogging around a stadium while a crowd stood and roared, "USA, USA, USA."

The United States beat Cuba, 4-0, in the gold-medal Olympic baseball final last night.

The Americans won with a lot of players you've probably never heard of and some you might never hear from again.

They won with a left fielder, Mike Neill, who slammed a home run in the first inning and caught the last fly ball in the ninth with a sliding grab on the grass.

They won with 37-year-old catcher Pat Borders, a former World Series Most Valuable Player long past his prime, calling the pitches for 22-year-old rising star Ben Sheets, who squashed Cuba's vaunted offense, striking out five and allowing three hits.

They won with John Cotton, Mike Kinkade and Doug Mientkiewicz, who will all go down in Olympic history as part of a team that ended an international dynasty.

And they won with 73-year-old former big-league manager Tom Lasorda, who raised the flag and raised spirits, providing a closing chapter to his career by helping pull off the "Miracle on Grass."

"A lot of people saw the names on the list and said, 'Who are these guys we're sending over?'" Mientkiewicz said.

They'll know now.

A weird and wonderful baseball tournament ended with a beautifully played game under the lights. It wasn't about politics. It wasn't about proving which country had a better social system.

It was about baseball, pure and simple, America's minor-leaguers against Cuba's aging stars.

A cherished moment

"Baseball was started by us, played by us, and now we have won the gold medal," said Ernie Young, who had two hits and drove in two runs against Cuba. "This is the best game I've played in my life, and if I never played another game again, I'd cherish this moment for the rest of my life."

They'll remember the medal ceremony, when they were on their golden podiums, doffing their caps to accept their golds. Neill took out a cellular phone, called his mom back in Greensboro, N.C., and held the phone up so that she could hear the playing of the national anthem.

Neill told his mother, "I won and hit a home run."

An hour after the game, he was in a runway, his sunburned face seemingly glowing under the glare of television camera lights. He plucked from his back pocket the ball he had caught for the last out, not wanting to give it up or give up the memory of the moment.

"It's better than playing in Tacoma," said Neill, who has 15 big-league at-bats and has spent virtually his entire professional career in the minors.

"I'm 30 years old and I'm still playing Little League baseball," he said.

But at the Olympics, he got onto a grander stage. He roomed with 14 other players at the Olympic Village, wandered around the Olympics, "doing them in a day," as he saw basketball, softball and the 400-meter victories of Michael Johnson and Cathy Freeman.

Then he got to star on the field, hitting a homer against Japan in the opener and closing the show against Cuba.

"It's big for me," he said. "It's my World Series."

Lasorda convinced this team, and himself, that the Olympics were bigger than the World Series. By the end of the night, he was walking around the field with an American flag draped over a shoulder and tears in his eyes.

Call it a last hurrah for an old man sliding gently into the baseball sunset. The win meant a lot to Lasorda, who didn't get a medal because only the players do at the Olympics, but who earned a place in the history books.

"Who is the only person who ever won a World Series as a manager and a gold medal as a manager?" he said, a living answer to his own question. "Fifty years from now, that will be a trivia question."

And 50 years from now, people might still be talking about this team.

It's a great story. A baseball story. Nobodies from nowhere winning the game of their lives.

The battle-scarred catcher.

The young pitcher.

And the cast of characters from far-flung places.

'We believed'

"A lot of us are nobodies," Neill said. "But we believed in ourselves that we could win."

A few of them, includng pitcher Sheets, might become stars. But most of the players will probably slip back into obscurity, known only to friends, family and those who follow the lives of those who take the buses, play in the bandbox ballparks and keep alive major-league dreams in minor-league towns.

"Hopefully, I'll get some opportunities," Neill said. Then, without missing a beat, he added, "But who cares? I've got a gold medal around my neck."

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