From the moment they came to Sydney, the U.S. baseball team had been refracted through the prism of the major leagues. They were onetime Twins and future Brewers, faded A's and traded Jays. Yes, they wore USA on their uniforms like the archers and divers and runners from the rest of the 664-member American contingent, but for these ballplayers the Olympics were not a brilliant beacon that had guided their lives for four years; instead these Games were just one more landmark on their long personal journeys, be they coming or going.
Tommy Lasorda, their 73-year-old Hall of Fame manager, understood this. He took every opportunity to mention that Ben Sheets (Brewers) and Roy Oswalt ( Astros) would become great pitchers for their big league clubs. He said that 30-year-old Mike Neill could still hit major league pitching. He boasted that if this team could stay together for two years—me most harmless of fantasies—it could win the World Series. Lasorda pumped so much sunshine into his players that they needed an SPF 60 sunblock.
He also proclaimed that the Olympics were bigger than the World Series. In a line he had splendidly rehearsed, Lasorda reasoned that when the Dodgers win the Series, Dodgers fans are happy but Giants and Reds fans aren't. Now everyone could be happy. Oakland and Seattle could battle for the American League West flag, but Lasorda had commandeered the one flag that matters—the one with stars and stripes, the one that rested on his left shoulder as he watched his players, the comers and the goers, wildly celebrating a 4-0 victory over heavily favored Cuba in the gold medal game.
In that game Sheets was magnificent, working with catcher Pat Borders—a 22-year-old prospect and a 37-year-old former World Series MVP, a perfect marriage of new and old. Sheets needed only 103 pitches against the flummoxed Cubans, humping fastballs and changing speeds and mixing in breaking stuff. He had 16 ground ball outs and struck out five. If Cuba had ever been shut out in international play, it was beyond the recall of 10-year manager Servio Borges. The Cubans scratched out just three hits, and only one runner reached second base against the righthander Sheets, mute tribute to his future in Milwaukee.
Legendary third baseman Omar Linares, who spurned agents' urgings to defect after the 1996 Olympics, had two harmless singles. Orestes Kindelan, Cuba's greatest slugger, struck out twice and fouled out. So full of swagger during an earlier 6-1 win over the U.S. in the round-robin, the Cubans seemed dispirited by the third inning. By the fourth the team that had won two Olympic baseball gold medals was bickering in the dugout. By the time the Cubans trudged to their positions for the top of the sixth, they looked like the Buenas Noches Social Club. Sheets, his hat tugged a little too low, his eyes steely with resolve, owned the greatest dynasty in international baseball. He appeared young and fresh and invincible. Later, when he spoke of his debt to his teammates, his voice was redolent of his Louisiana home. Opie Taylor had just won a gold medal.
The Americans dawdled on the field in an effort to imprint the moment before they strolled through the tunnel to get gussied up for the medal ceremony. Jon Rauch, a towering righty and another Lasorda pet, was the first player to reach the press area, and he was immediately buttonholed by the NBC Chicago affiliate. The first question was about the historic victory. The second was how soon did he think he would be ready to help the White Sox.
The prism won't change for these Olympic baseball players, so maybe it is most appropriate to say this: They played Cuba as if it were the seventh game of the World Series.