Lasorda's Olympic gold an example for Torre
Classic triumph for Team USA would be on par with 2000 Summer Games medal
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Thirteen years ago, a World Series-winning manager named Tommy Lasorda came out of retirement at 72 with the job of leading USA baseball to Olympic gold.
The comparisons to this year's Team USA are eerily similar. The 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia, marked the third time baseball had been a medal sport. Going in, the U.S. had never won the gold.
This year's edition of the World Baseball Classic is the third. The U.S. hasn't won. When the team gathers here Sunday at Salt River Fields for preliminary meetings, it will be under the charge of another 72-year-old manager coming out of retirement.
Joe Torre's job?
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"Win the thing," Lasorda said this week. "I'm tired of the Japanese beating us."
Lasorda did just that. His team went 8-1 in those Olympics, vanquishing the Japanese, and finally Cuba, to win the only Olympic gold medal in USA Baseball history. The Cubans won the first two baseball golds at Barcelona in 1992, and Atlanta in 1996. The U.S. won the bronze in '96, finishing third. In comparison, the U.S. finished no higher than fourth in the first two Classics, both won by the Japanese.
"He's got to pull that team through," Lasorda said of Torre. "We're the best in the world, and we're letting those guys beat us. It's not right. He's got to make them understand what it's all about when you put on that uniform, just like I did with that Olympic team."
Lasorda, now 85, still looked resplendent this week out at Dodgers camp dressed in his bright white uniform with the Dodgers blue trim, that famous No. 2 stitched on the back under his name. Nestled away on the back fields of Camelback Ranch as a tryout was under way, Lasorda was at his most comfortable: still the center of attention among the throngs of young players.
By the time Lasorda took the reins of the Olympic team, he had already won two World Series titles and four National League pennants as manager of the Dodgers. And in 1997, a year after he retired, Lasorda was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Lasorda's task of melding together the first group of professional players to participate in the Summer Olympics was not an easy one. Major League Baseball had agreed to send its best crop of Minor Leaguers for the first time. The Japanese had been sending their pros from Nippon Professional Baseball, and Cuba simply had dominated international baseball for decades.
Lasorda recalled being full of fire and brimstone when he gathered his novice team together.
"I said, 'Hey, you represent the United States of America, and you're not going to do anything to embarrass our country or yourselves,'" Lasorda said. "'All you're going to do is win. And you know why you're going to win? Because baseball is our game. It doesn't belong to the Japanese, it doesn't belong to the Cubans, it doesn't belong to the Italians. It's our game and we're not going to let those guys beat us.' And that's exactly what they did."
Foreshadowing things to come, in 2000 pool play, the Cubans had their 21-game Olympic winning streak snapped by the Dutch, proving that they weren't invincible. Team USA's only loss in the first round was to Cuba, but behind a complete-game effort from Ben Sheets -- then a Brewers prospect -- the U.S. easily handled Cuba, 4-0, to win the gold.
The story of that 2000 Olympic team is recalled in Dave Fanucchi's recent fine book, "Miracle on Grass." The title is a takeoff of the "Miracle on Ice" crown bestowed on the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team, a group of amateurs who upset the mighty Russians at Lake Placid, N.Y., and ultimately won the gold.
The task of USA baseball in Sydney was no less daunting, and Fanucchi, USA Baseball's press attaché, lived every moment of it. The book should be required reading for this year's group of Major Leaguers. If Phil Jackson was coaching the team, it would have been in each locker as players arrived at camp, probably along with the works of Camus and Kierkegaard.
Instead, in this world of higher technology, Paul Seiler, the head of USA Baseball then and now, produced a video about the 2000 Olympic adventure. Torre was planning on showing it to the boys when they gathered for their first meeting as a team on Sunday evening.
Like Lasorda, Torre is a guy who knows about winning. As manager of the Yankees, Torre won the World Series four times, along with six American League pennants. His career ended on the field in 2010 with the Dodgers, and no matter what happens in this year's Classic, Torre seems to be almost a sure electee to the Hall later this year by the Post-Expansion Committee. The ballot should also include Tony La Russa, Lou Piniella and Bobby Cox. All of those all-time great managers would be stellar additions to Cooperstown, N.Y., in the Class of 2014.
But no matter what Torre accomplishes, Lasorda will remain the only baseball manager in history to win both the World Series and Olympic gold. And through almost 60 years of bleeding Dodgers blue as a pitcher, coach, manager and now a consultant for ownership, Lasorda flatly states that winning with Team USA was his greatest moment.
"Without a doubt," he said. "Because when you win the World Series, the Dodgers fans are happy, but the Reds fans aren't, the Padres fans aren't. You win the gold medal, everybody in America is happy. That's got to be bigger than that."
Barry M. Bloom is national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow@boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.