Tommy Lasorda started telling stories and employing all sorts of motivational shtick the minute he set foot in Australia.
Managing the U.S. baseball team was bigger than his beloved Los Angeles Dodgers, the World Series and the entire Major Leagues thrown together, he proclaimed. There was no reason to be in awe of the Cubans and their record of international dominance. "We didn't come 10,000 miles to lose," Lasorda said repeatedly, sometimes varying the distance.
With Lasorda, talk seems cheap.
It's actually worth its weight in gold.
Lasorda convinced a rag-tag bunch of minor-league lifers, future major leagues and journeymen they were capable of being champions, masterminding the biggest upset in the short history of Olympic baseball. The United States beat Cuba 4-0 Wednesday at the Olympic Baseball Stadium, earning the gold medal and ending the Cubans' reign as Olympic champs and international baseball bullies.
"This is bigger than the World Series," Lasorda said. "When the Dodgers won the World Series, Dodger fans were happy. Cincinnati fans weren't. San Francisco fans weren't. Today, the United States of America is happy."
Ben Sheets, a 22-year-old from the Class AAA Indianapolis Indians, pitched the complete game, allowing only three hits and no walks. When he prompted Cuba's last batter, Yasser Gomez, to fly out, he slid to his knees with his arms raised high. Lasorda turned in the dugout and hugged fellow old-timer, pitching coach Phil Regan.
"Phil Regan and I had this day planned a few days ago," Lasorda said. "This kid (Sheets) is going to be a great pitcher. He has ice water in his veins. He's not scared and he's pitching the biggest game of his life. He's just a baby in baseball terms, and look what he did."
The Americans' reserves stormed the field after the win, and then celebrated with the starters on a victory tour around the outfield, capped when they launched baseballs to the U.S. fans in the stands. Lasorda cried, as did most of his players.
"We came here to do this: Shock the world," U.S. second baseman Brent Abernathy said. "Nobody thought we could win the gold, but we came out and played USA baseball. And for a guy Ben Sheets' age to go out there and pitch the way he did against their great hitters is unbelievable."
The United States had all the runs it needed when Mike Neill hit a solo home run with two outs in the first.
But the Americans added a cushion with three runs in the fifth -- on a RBI single by Pat Borders and a two-run bases-loaded single by Ernie Young -- and Sheets had an impenetrable repertoire of pitches.
"With the great stuff that Sheets had, there was nobody in the world who was going to score four runs on him," Abernathy said. Cuba won the 1992 and 1996 Olympic titles -- the only previous years baseball has been an official Olympic sport. But the Cubans showed age and vulnerability in Sydney, losing to Netherlands in preliminary play. They left the premises Wednesday without taking questions from the media.
The United States played young, even if the players weren't all that fresh faced. One of the best plays in the gold-medal game came in the eighth when right fielder Young slid into foul territory and nabbed a foul ball hit by Ariel Pestano. By minor-league standards, Young is old. He's 31.
Lasorda, the retired Dodger legend, put the mantle of leadership on those veterans, such as Young and Borders, and they picked up on his motivational prompts. Lasorda was still in prime form an hour after the win.
"Their first pitcher threw 93 mph," Lasorda said, his voice escalating. "Their second pitcher threw 97 mph. Their third pitcher threw 100 mph. And these guys beat them!"
As the roomful of reporters and players laughed, Borders said, "I'm ready to go play again."
Hopes for a U.S. challenge to Cuba's dominance were raised this year because of the introduction of professional players to Olympic play. But the Major League season prevented the likes of Ken Griffey Jr. or Derek Jeter from playing, and a flirtation by retired stars such as Wade Boggs proved to be no more than a tease.
Only one familiar name joined the final roster -- Borders, who was World Series MVP for the Toronto Blue Jays in 1992. He had been out of the majors for two years. There were moments of angst during the tournament for the Americans, who weren't expected to medal and were blown out 6-1 by the Cubans when they met in preliminary pool play.
In that game, tensions mounted and the two teams nearly came to blows because of some rough play and bitter words. The Americans were much more patient Wednesday, even when the Cuban pitchers used typical stalling tactics.
"We were not going to play Cuban baseball again," Abernathy said. "We were not going to get caught up playing physical baseball and trying to mess with people's minds. We played the game the way it is supposed to be played."
Twice in the tournament, first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz beat Korea with home runs. He hit a grand slam in the eighth last week, then beat Korea on Tuesday with a solo homer in the bottom of the ninth. That game was delayed two hours by rain before the United States won. Mientkiewicz spent the 1999 season with the Minnesota Twins before being sent down to Salt Lake City this year.
Sheets was masterful against Cuba, striking out two batters in the first inning, and put the Cubans down in order in the second, third, fourth, sixth, eighth and ninth. The Cubans only once advanced a runner to second base. He struck out two more batters to open the ninth.
"Pat Borders made it easy," Sheets said. "He calls the pitches, I just deliver them, and my fielders were behind me to back me up, so give them the credit." The Americans gave Sheets his cushion in the fifth when they drove Cuba's second pitcher, Jose Ibar, from the game. After Doug Mientkiewicz walked to open the inning, Pat Borders doubled to bring him home. Borders was thrown out on an attempted sacrifice bunt, but the United States loaded the bases with one out and Ernie Young smashed a single up the middle, driving home Adam Everett and Abernathy for the 4-0 lead.
"We're taking it home, baby!" Young yelled as he sprinted off the field.
They're taking the gold home. Just as Lasorda has been telling everybody -- most of all his players -- all along.