SYDNEY, Australia. - You've heard of the Dream team? Well, the Dispensable team won a gold medal for the United States yesterday in Sydney.
The U.S. baseball team - a group of players right out of "Bull Durham," full of Crash Davises and Nuke LaLooshes - beat the Cuban baseball empire.
They beat them badly. How badly? Like a Ricky Ricardo bongo drum. The orchestra leader was manager Tommy Lasorda, who declared war on Cuba the minute he landed in Australia by planting the American flag right on his sleeve.
"I'm very familiar with the whole scene in Cuba," Lasorda said then. "I was there during the revolution. I saw the government change hands twice in Cuba. I was playing there in 1952 and in 1959, when [Fidel] 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 was Lasorda's Bay of Sydney.
The score of the game was 4-0, but the Cubans were never in it. Ben Sheets, a 22-year-old prospect from the Milwaukee Brewers, allowed just three hits. That's three hits against some of the greatest players in the long and proud tradition of Cuban baseball, such as third baseman Omar Linares, shortstop German Mesa, and left fielder Luis Ulacia.
It was the biggest team upset in American Olympic history since the men's hockey team pulled off the Miracle on Ice 20 years ago.
Call this the Miracle of Lasagna.
This was a team nobody wanted - literally. Sure, there are some hot prospects on it, such as Sheets and Sean Burroughs, the San Diego Padres' top draft choice. But for the most part it consisted of career minor leaguers like Mike Neill and Ernie Young, who between them played in more than 1,800 bush league games. The only player with significant major league experience was 37-year-old catcher Pat Borders, a former World Series MVP who started this season in Class A.
This was the first time professional baseball players would be used in the Olympics. However, the ones the Americans would have liked to bring - Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Ken Griffey - are in the final month of the major league season. So essentially, when teams were asked by the Olympic Baseball Steering Committee to contribute players, they came up with a list of players they didn't need - dispensable players.
But the committee also picked the perfect manager for the job: Lasorda. It was an ideal marriage - a team of players who needed someone to believe in them and a manager who believed in them before he ever saw them play.
"[Baseball officials] told me that they weren't giving me a very good team, and I asked, `Are they breathing?' " Lasorda said. "I have never managed a team that I didn't believe was going to win, and I wasn't about to start now."
The team had exactly one workout, in San Diego, but before it left Lasorda had Ted Williams give the players a pep talk by speaker phone. And if Ted Williams was talking to them, they must have been about to embark on something special.
When the team arrived in Australia, it won four of five exhibition games on the Gold Coast against Australia, the Netherlands, Italy, South Africa and Korea. By the time it got to Sydney, Lasorda had each player convinced he was Ted Williams.
"I made them believe they could win," Lasorda said.
Lasorda told anyone and everyone who would listen that the team would win, that these were talented players, major leaguers, all of them. This was not the kind of talk these players usually hear from minor league managers in places like Modesto, Calif., and Burlington, Vt. No one is telling them they are the second coming of Kirk Gibson and Orel Hershiser.
Yet here was this man with two World Series rings, who managed the Los Angeles Dodgers for 20 years, telling them they could beat the best international baseball team on the face of the earth - a team the Baltimore Orioles lost to 12-6 in May 1999 at Camden Yards. (And doesn't that result look even more embarrassing now?)
Here was this man telling reporters yesterday that nothing was more special than managing these players and winning the Olympic gold medal for his country. "I managed the Dodgers for 20 years and had a lot of great moments, but this is the greatest moment of my life," Lasorda said.
A lot of what comes out of Lasorda's mouth is bluster. But these circumstances called for bluster. The Cuban baseball machine won the gold medal in the 1992 and 1996 Olympics without losing a game and won 19 straight international world championships and 23 of the last 25. What are you going to tell a team of players who are, essentially, nonessential personnel to their organization? That they need to execute the hit and run?
No. You tell them this is their chance to prove wrong all those scouts and general managers who never paid attention to them. You tell them they are Americans and they are playing for a glory greater than a long-term contract. You tell them Ted Williams is watching.
"Did you see those pitchers [the Cubans] had out there?" Lasorda asked at the news conference after yesterday's win, his voice rising steadily. "The first one, he threw 93 miles an hour. The second one threw 97 miles an hour. And the third one threw 100 miles an hour. And these guys beat them!"
Responded Neill: "I want to go out and play again."
Of course he did. The Dispensable Team had become Team Destiny.