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LASORDA'S BASEBALL GOSPEL INSPIRES TEAM USA WIN

Tommy Lasorda swears it never occurred to him. Not when the ball jumped off Mike Neill's bat and went soaring toward the right-field seats. Not when Neill rounded the first-base bag and thrust his fist in the air. Not even when Lasorda came bounding out of the dugout on those bandy legs of his and followed his players toward home plate to greet their new hero.

"No, I didn't think about Kirk Gibson," Lasorda said after Neill's homer gave the U.S. baseball team a 4-2, 13-inning win over favored Japan in their Olympic opener.

(Later, Jon Rauch struck out 13 and John Cotton had five RBIs as the U. S. routed South Africa 11-1. The game was called after seven innings because the Americans were winning by 10 runs.)

"All I was thinking about was Mike coming around those bases. I'll tell you the truth. I couldn't have gotten any more joy out of this young man hitting that home run.

"I've tried to tell people this, but they don't seem to believe me," Lasorda said, his voice rising and his words coming more rapidly. "This is BIGGER than the World Series. This is BIGGER than the Dodgers. This is BIGGER than Major League Baseball. This is for the United States of America. The whole country is pulling for us. And by golly, we didn't let 'em down today."

By golly, Tommy Lasorda is back managing again, and the former Dodger skipper didn't let anyone down in his first game as Olympic manager. He was loud. He was effusive. He talked to anyone who approached him with a microphone or note pad. He wasn't bleeding Dodger blue; he was oozing the good old red, white and blue.

So what if he embroiders things a tad? So what if he referred to his backup catcher as Pat Border, instead of Borders? It was a classic Lasorda performance. If Lasorda swears he wasn't reminded of Gibson's epic game-winning homer in the first game of the 1988 World Series (and if so, he was the only one), who are we to question him?

That's the only way he knows. It's the way he managed the Dodgers in the old days, with humor and bluster, hyperbole and a bowl of pasta. He says things over and over again until you have no choice but to believe him. That's what happened in '88, when an ordinary Dodger team gave Lasorda his finest triumph, upsetting the Mets and the mighty A's to win the World Series.

Now he's trying to work his magic with a ragtag bunch of major-league castoffs and marginal prospects. You can tell he has missed the action. And we've missed him, too. It's a joy to have him here, breathing excitement into Olympic baseball and reminding us how fun it can be to shoot for gold with an unremarkable roster.

There's something essentially joyless about the way our Dream Team basketball squad tramples every team in its path. This baseball team reminds you there used to be a certain charm in sending young, unproven players to compete in our major sports at the Olympics. The American baseball squad is no Dream Team. The only recognizable name is Borders, who won a World Series MVP with the Blue Jays in 1992 and recently played for the Bisons. The first baseman, Doug Mientkiewicz, hit .229 for the Twins in 1999. Neill, a well-traveled, 30-year-old Seattle farmhand, was about to quit the sport four years ago at Class A Modesto until his father showed up to talk him out of it.

"I could probably get elected mayor of that town now," Neill said after hitting his big home run.

The Americans have some decent young prospects, like 23-year-old Adam Everett, who was traded from Boston to Houston in the Carl Everett deal; Sean Burroughs, the 19-year-old son of former big-league star Jeff Burroughs; and Ben Sheets, the 22-year-old Milwaukee farmhand who pitched seven strong innings Saturday.

The Olympic baseball people had hoped to build a more potent team. But a lot of big-league teams were reluctant to part with their better young players, preferring to keep them around for the September stretch run. Lasorda has been critical of some general managers for not doing enough for their country. That only emphasized his team's role as plucky underdog.

In his next breath, he makes his team out to be the second coming of the 1927 Yankees.

"I told the commissioner that if you gave me this club right here and let me manage it, in two years we'd be in the Fall Classic. Look at this kid," Lasorda said, putting his arm around Sheets' shoulder. "If you don't like this kid, you don't like Christmas. Look at his face. I want to take him home with me."

He could be the kid's grandfather. He probably has sheets older than Sheets. But Lasorda's act has a way of working with players. It worked with the Dodgers and it just might work here. If he keeps telling them how good they are, the idea might stick.

The Americans struggled at the plate against Daisuke Matsuzaka, a star in the Japanese professional leagues who tossed 10 innings. Still, the U.S. had a 2-0 lead in the seventh inning and would have won in regulation if not for two weak rollers down the third-base line that produced the tying run for Japan in the top of the ninth.

Maybe it was better it worked out this way. When Gibson hit his homer off Dennis Eckersley in Game One of the '88 Series, it gave the Dodgers a monumental lift. They never came down. Neill's dramatic home run could have the same effect on the U.S. team.

"This is big, man," Lasorda said. "You don't know how thankful we are to have this ballclub. I told them today, 'If people spent six months trying to pick a team with character and ability, they would never have a team like this one.' "

He barely knows his players' names, but that's a trifling concern. What matters is that Lasorda is managing again, spreading his culture of belief.

"He believes it," Borders said. "He really does. So I guess we might as well believe, too."

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