US minor leaguers pull off major upset of Cuba

Tommy Lasorda, manager of the United States Olympic baseball team, is nothing if not irrepressible. Long ago, he retired the trophy on hyperbole.

So when he says something, the best approach is to chuckle and ignore. Coming into the Olympics, Cuba was a top-heavy favorite and several other teams, including South Korea, looked formidable. The somewhat rag-tag Americans were generally considered to be in a pool of others.

When Lasorda was asked how his team of minor leaguers - mostly AAA, some AA - could leave here with gold medals around their necks, he said, "They're going to want it more than the other team, and that's the way we're going to win."

Most chuckled and ignored.

But, as sure as former Los Angeles manager Lasorda bleeds Dodgers blue and is still the only person extant who refers to the World Series as the Fall Classic, the US won the Olympic baseball title here last night because, frankly, they wanted it more than the other team. Much more.

It was a rout, an easy 4-0 victory.

The other team also happened to be the feared Cubans, who had won gold medals in the only two previous Games in which the sport was contested.

The Cubans seemed supremely confident. That was a justifiable feeling. After all, heading into the game, they were 25-1 in Olympic play (uncharacteristically, they lost earlier to the lowly Netherlands), they have 12 players who were on the Atlanta Olympic team, and their record against the US in major international events was 25-3.

Cuban captain Antonio Pacheco said, "I'm very confident no matter what sort of rival we meet, whether they are professionals, wizards, or ghosts." And Cuba pitcher Lazaro Valle exuded invincibility, saying, "This team is tuned for the championship."

But not like the US, which was fine tuned. People who believe in omens had much to believe in, in the first inning when left fielder Mike Neill, who saw 31 days of major league service with Oakland in 1998, smacked a home run.

Then in the third, arguably the only recognizable name on the US roster, catcher Pat Borders - more than 11 years in the bigs, including being named MVP in the 1992 World Series when he was with Toronto - doubled home-team hero Doug Mientkiewicz, who had walked.

Mientkiewicz was with the Minnesota Twins for all of 1999, but hit just .229, which is why he played for minor league Salt Lake this year. But the other day, he belted a grand slam homer to give the Americans a 4-0 win over South Korea. Then Tuesday night, playing the Koreans again, he hit a ninth-inning home run to boost the US to a 3-2 triumph - and a shot at the Cubans.

Mientkiewicz, meanwhile, is worn out by the emotion and turmoil. "I can't take much more of this," he says. "I'm going to sleep for a month."

Later in the third inning, Ernie Young drove in two runs. That was ample.

Ample because pitcher Ben Sheets - who Lasorda "guarantees" will be a star in the big leagues - was a definite star in the Olympic league. He gave up just three hits, all singles, and never had a shaky moment. In 22 innings of Olympic work, Sheets, a first-round draft pick of the Milwaukee Brewers, allowed just one earned run.

The winners' second baseman, Brent Abernathy, marveled at Sheets's performance, saying, "For a guy this young to be doing that, it's unbelievable."

Just like the Americans winning.

"No one," Abernathy says, "thought we could win the gold."

Actually, no. Lasorda did.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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