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Olympic Notebook:
Lasorda in classic form

By John Manuel

September 17

SYDNEY—Without major leaguers on the field, Team USA's most visible presence is clearly manager Tommy Lasorda. And both during and after a thrilling 13-inning 4-2 win against Japan in his club's Olympic opener, Lasorda was in classic Lasorda form.

Lasorda argued with a Cuban umpire. He juggled his lineup, playing hunches with his starting unit and using all but two of his reserve position players. And in the end, he celebrated like Lasorda, leaping up after Mike Neill's game-winning homer in the bottom of the 13th. Lasorda had all the lines, commanding the media room both while he was asked questions and when he wasn't. He often chatted amiably with his players and Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Bill Conlin while the Japanese players and manager Kozo Ohtakagi took questions. Some of his more memorable lines:

  • On the Olympic atmosphere: "It felt like the seventh game of the playoffs (in 1988) with Orel Hershiser on the mound. I can't describe the joy at this young man (Neill) hitting that home run. I was jumping up and down like it was a World Series game. I jumped when (Kirk) Gibson hit his home run (in the 1988 World Series), and now, but this is bigger. This is bigger than the Dodgers, bigger than Major League Baseball. We're doing this for America."
  • On his team of minor leaguers: "We needed that game. These guys are tremendous. They could've gotten down on themselves after (Japan) tied the game in the ninth, but they didn't. If you took six months to build a team with character, you couldn't come up with a better bunch." (Of course, it did take about six months to select the players for Team USA.)
  • On his staring pitcher, Brewers righthander Ben Sheets: "If you don't like this guy, you don't like Christmas. He was outstanding."
  • On Sheets' counterpart, Japanese 20-year-old righty Daisuke Matsuzaka: "He looks like he's 14. I told him after the game he pitched a great game. He reminded me of Hershiser."
  • On Team USA winning pitcher Ryan Franklin, who pitched four shutout innings out of the bullpen: "He's got a lot of Bulldog (again, Hershiser) in him."
  • On pitch counts for Matsuzaka, who threw 138 pitches, and Sheets, who threw just 91: "I don't believe in them. I never used them with the Dodgers. A young man has to strengthen his arm, and the way you do that is by pitching."
  • And finally, on Cuban first-based umpire Cesar Valdes, with whom he argued after Valdes badly blew a call at first base: "The guy (Doug Mientkiewicz) tagged him, he almost tripped the runner (Yukio Tanaka). I said he tagged him, and he said he didn't. There's no use arguing with 'em; it's like arguing with city hall."

Lasorda was not forthcoming, though, about a starting pitcher for Team USA's next game, against South Africa. The Americans play Monday evening at the Olympics' second baseball site, Blacktown Ballpark, at 6:30 p.m. local time. Team USA plays again at Blacktown at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday against The Netherlands. Team USA's next two starting pitchers will come from a pool that includes righthanders Kurt Ainsworth (Giants), Roy Oswalt (Astros) and Jon Rauch (White Sox) -the Minor League Player of the Year-and lefthanders Chris George (Royals) and Rick Krivda (Orioles).

Soaking It Up

Team USA is staying in the athletes' village with the exception of Lasorda, who said officials needed his bed. And they've already gotten into the Olympic spirit on and off the field.

Much like the players at last year's Pan American Games-the first international tournament in which USA Baseball had used professionals-the members of Team USA were quickly immersed in the intense atmosphere of international baseball. Last year's Pan Am opener in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, had a little bit of everything as Team Canada rallied from a 6-3 deficit to take a wild 7-6 win in extra innings. This year, Team USA needed extra frames again, but the outcome was a more enjoyable 4-2 win.

"This was definitely everything we had been told it would be," said Team USA starter Ben Sheets, who has thrown 12 scoreless innings in Australia counting his exhibition outing. "For us to come through at the end like that was really exciting, a great end to a great game."

Added 37-year-old catcher Pat Borders (Devil Rays), Team USA's most senior member: "Of course I was nervous. If you're not nervous, you're not alive."

Team USA outfielder Ernie Young, another of the team's major league veterans, quickly adapted to the intensity. He was a frequent visitor to the top step of Team USA's dugout, exhorting teammates with such speeches as, "This is our f---ing game! Come on! Let's win this f---ing thing!" Young also has caught the Olympic spirit in the more traditional sense.

"We went out last night, about six or seven of us, and saw the women's volleyball team against China," Young said. "We were cheering them on and really are getting a great idea of what all the excitement is about. They were so into it, and I got to feel that today. "If you have USA on your shirt, you're my teammate, that's how I'm looking at it."

Olympic News

Two stories have grabbed all the headlines in Sydney: the pair of gold medals won in the Games' first day by Aussie superstar swimmer Ian Thorpe, a.k.a. the Thorpedo, and the departure of International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio Samaranch from the games.

An Associated Press report said Samaranch returned to Spain to be with his 67-year-old wife, Maria Teresa Salisachs-Rowe, who died just before Samaranch landed in Barcelona after a 20-hour flight. He said he was notified of her death by telephone during the flight to Barcelona. Samaranch said the funeral will be held Monday in Barcelona and that he would return to Sydney for the rest of the games. He's scheduled to retire as IOC president in July 2001.

Olympic Flames

Some notes from Team USA's win against Japan: The teams combined to use 33 of their 48 players, and just three position players went unused: Team USA's Borders and third baseman Sean Burroughs (Padres), and Japanese catcher Kosuke Noda . . . The longest game in Olympic baseball history was Taiwan's 3-0, 14-inning win against Korea in the bronze-medal game in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. That game was played at Dodger Stadium. The longest since it became a full medal sport in 1992 was the Dominican Republic's 7-5, 10-inning victory over Italy in Barcelona that year . . . Lasorda's argument with first-base umpire Valdes followed a tough play by shortstop Adam Everett (Astros). With runners at first and second and two outs, Japan shortstop Yukio Tanaka hit a slow roller to short. Everett fielded the ball on the run and threw to first, but his throw pulled Mientkiewicz off the bag. Television replays showed Mientkiewicz tagged Tanaka before Tanaka touched first, and that Tanaka in fact never touched first base at all. Yet Valdes ruled him safe, loading the bases. Team USA escaped the jam when DH Shinnosuke Abe lined the first pitch he saw right to Everett . . . Japan's lineup included all five of its position players that play in the nation's major leagues, with four of them hitting in the top five spots. No. 3 hitter Nobuhiko Matsunaka and No. 4 hitter Norihiro Nakamura combined for 71 home runs in 2000, and No. 5 hitter Tanaka has reached double figures in homers in 11 of his 14 Japan League seasons.

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