Archive for Thursday, September 28, 2000

Cuban dynasty shattered

Impressive United States baseball victory doesn’t compare to ‘Miracle on Ice’

September 28, 2000


Every dynasty finally becomes a victim of its success. Cuba was no different.

It wasn't plucky college kids who brought Olympic baseball's Big Red Machine to a grinding halt. It was age, wooden bats, defections and dozens of major leaguers spread across the other seven teams in the tournament.

Most of all, though, it was a Milwaukee Brewers bonus baby named Ben Sheets, too young to have seen the Cubans play before last week and too tough to be scared.

"I kind of left it up to the coaches and my catcher," the 22-year-old right-hander said. "I just tried to throw it where they called for it."

United States 4, Cuba 0 in Wednesday night's gold medal game was hardly an upset for the ages. This was a team of Americans who might play in the majors someday beating a team of Cubans who should have played there a decade ago.

It doesn't even begin to rank alongside the U.S. hockey team's "Miracle on Ice" win over the Soviets at the 1980 Games. In truth, it wasn't even the biggest Olympic upset of the night. That belonged to U.S. Greco-Roman wrestler Rulon Gardner, who broke Russian Alexander Karelin's string of three Olympic gold medals and 13-year unbeaten streak.

The Cubans were reeling even before Sheets sunk his talons into them. A week ago, the Netherlands ended their Olympic unbeaten streak at 21 games with a 4-2 win.

Of course, that was before most people knew that former Yankees outfielder Hensley "Bam Bam" Meulens, former San Francisco pitcher Ken Brauckmiller and former Mets infielder Ralph Milliard were all Dutch.

That the three wound up at the Olympics was, in a roundabout way, the Cubans' fault. They rolled to gold so easily in both previous Olympic tournaments that organizers tried to level the playing field. In came major leaguers holding foreign passports. Out went aluminum bats.

The team Cuba brought to Sydney was largely the same it had sent to Barcelona, Atlanta and every important international competition since.

Pulling the strings for the U.S. was blustery 73-year-old former L.A. Dodger-manager-for-life, Tommy Lasorda. He taught them to believe.

Lasorda said if he had this U.S. squad together for two seasons, he'd have it in the World Series. After they beat the Cubans, that seemed too modest. "Everybody in the world," he said, "is going to know about these guys."

Like Sheets. Coming out of Northeast Louisiana two year ago, he was good enough to get one of baseball's stingiest operations to cough up $2.45 million. "He reminds me of a right-handed David Wells," said U.S. catcher Pat Borders.

He should be a star someday.

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