Work in Sports
Career minor leaguer Neill has knack for big hit
SYDNEY, Australia -- After Mike Neill smacked a two-run home run deep to right field in the bottom of the 13th inning to beat Japan, he paused to watch the ball fly out of park. Neill, however, wasn't showing up Japanese pitcher Toshiya Sugiuchi; he certainly deserved to take a good long look, since he hasn't seen many wonderful things happen in his career.
Four years ago, Neill was a 26-year-old stuck in A ball and ready to quit. His father, Bob, traveled from North Carolina to see his son in Modesto, Calif., where he was playing in the A's organization, and asked, "If you quit, what are you going to do?" Neill replied: "I'm going to go to the beach and have fun." To which Dad countered: "Why don't you have fun here?" Neill turned his season and career around starting right then.
His manager here, Tommy Lasorda, says Neill can definitely hit in the big leagues. Neill has had a couple cups of coffee in the majors, but he's never stuck. He spent the 2000 season as a member of the Mariners' Triple-A club in Tacoma, Wash.
Curiously, this is not Neill's most important hit in international competition. In the Pan-Am Games semifinals against Mexico last summer in Winnipeg, Neill broke up a 1-1 tie in the 10th inning with a pinch-hit RBI single, giving the U.S. the victory that qualified it for the Olympics.
Lasorda is happy to have him on the team in Sydney. The former Dodgers skipper managed a smart game Sunday, setting up the U.S.'s two-run seventh inning with a hit-and-run single by Doug Mientkiewicz. The Americans also stole two bases against weak-armed Japanese catcher Fumihiro Suzuki, who wasn't Japan's first choice for this tournament. The team tried to get another player from the Japanese major leagues but was blocked.
Beating Sports Illustrated's gold-medal pick certainly bolsters the Americans' confidence. Japan has given them fits internationally, most notably four years ago in Atlanta. Also, the win establishes the U.S. in the round robin; given Cuba's opening-game no-hitter, a 16-0 win over South Africa, the Americans certainly needed a big victory.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Michael Farber is in Sydney covering the Games for the magazine and CNNSI.com. Check back daily to read Farber's behind-the-scenes reports from Down Under.