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Power outburst makes Mientkiewicz an Olympic hero

By John Manuel

SYDNEY–When the Olympics were over and he had a gold medal draped around his neck, Doug Mientkiewicz was ready to address those skeptical of Team USA–and of Doug Mientkiewicz.

"Where’s Peter? Where is Gammons now?" Mientkiewicz asked from his seat at the postgame press conference after a decisive 4-0 victory against Cuba. Mientkiewicz and other Team USA veterans had spoken openly of how they had used the fuel of predictions–such as the one by ESPN’s Gammons calling them the fifth-best team in the Olympics–to fire their run to the gold medal.

"For all the doubters, thank you for that, because that was a big motivating factor for us," said Mientkiewicz, who then took a moment to talk about himself. "Everyone wants a first baseman who hits 50 home runs and has no glove. Well, I’m the exact opposite. I hope there’s room in the big leagues for me."

Mientkiewicz and his teammates in Australia were wearing gold medals in large part because of his power, as he hit two home runs to win games against Korea. In the preliminary round, his grand slam in the bottom of the eighth accounted for all the runs in a 4-0 game.

In the semifinals, Mientkiewicz put Team USA into its first gold-medal game since baseball became a full-medal Olympic sport in 1992. In the bottom of the ninth, he slammed a solo homer to break a 2-2 tie and end a stirring comeback.

"He’s unbelievable," said outfielder Mike Neill (Mariners), who led the tournament with three homers. "We were on the bench waiting for him to pick us up again, and he did it again."

Mientkiewicz was available for Olympic duty because he hit .229-2-32 in 327 big league at-bats in 1999, his first full season with the Twins. He clashed with manager Tom Kelly, who appreciates a more aggressive philosophy at the plate, and Mientkiewicz was sent back to Triple-A Salt Lake for the 2000 season.

He hit .334-18-96 for the Buzz and continued to hit in the Olympics, where he was Team USA’s most consistent source of offense. Mientkiewicz tied Ernie Young (Cardinals) for the club RBI lead with eight and ranked second on the team with a .414 average and his two huge homers.

He hit safely in every game for the Americans except the gold-medal win, when his leadoff walk against Cuban righthander Jose Ibar started a pivotal three-run fifth inning. Team USA wouldn’t have earned the rematch against Cuba, which took a 6-1 decision in the preliminary round, without Mientkiewicz’ clutch performances against Korea.

Submarining righthander Tae-Hyon Chong shut out the Americans for seven innings in the teams’ first matchup, with Mientkiewicz smacking two of their six hits against him. Mientkiewicz batted in the bottom of the eighth against hard-throwing reliever Pil-Jung Jin with the bases loaded and two out in a scoreless game.

"I was at second base and had a perfect view of the at-bat," Young said. "Doug was seeing the ball good all night, and he took some tough pitches to run the count full. I knew the way he was seeing it, he was going to have a good at-bat. He hit a fastball. The guy had to challenge him because he’d laid off everything else, and he had nowhere to put him."

Mientkiewicz answered the challenge with a towering blast to right field for a game-winning grand slam he called the biggest hit of his life.

"Before this, I’d have to say a home run I hit in Yankee Stadium against David Cone," he said. "But that was more personal. I broke a 0-for-38 slump, so it was the most relieved I’ve ever been after a hit."

Little did Mientkiewicz know he could top himself, which he did five nights later. Team USA had scrapped back to tie the game 2-2 against Chong, then had wasted a bases-loaded, one-out opportunity in the bottom of the eighth, an inning interrupted by a two-hour rain delay. Then in the ninth, pinch-runner Gookie Dawkins was picked off at first base with Mientkiewicz sitting on a 2-1 count.

Mientkiewicz promptly hit Seok-Jin Park’s next pitch into almost the same spot as his first game-winning home run. Having had a little practice–and considering this homer ended the game in the bottom of the ninth–Mientkiewicz celebrated his second homer with gusto.

He galloped around the bases, raising his right arm and pumping his fist. When Mientkiewicz reached the plate, Young and his teammates hoisted him on their shoulders in a raucous victory celebration that was topped the next night when they beat Cuba for the gold.

The celebration was more muted when Mientkiewicz returned home, as he rejoined the Twins as they played out the season’s final three games. He went 6-for-14 with six singles and four RBIs.

Mientkiewicz, who said he deserved to be sent back to the minors in the spring, was proud to be back in Minnesota. If he plays the way he did in helping win the gold medal, the big leagues will make room for him.

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