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Patriot Games

TIMES STAFF WRITER

If you want to upset Tommy Lasorda, all you have to do is tell him that the United States’ recent victory over Cuba in the gold medal baseball game of the 2000 Olympics in Australia didn’t mean much.

“I felt that winning [an Olympic gold medal] is bigger than the World Series and I kept preaching that ever since [I was named manager],” said Lasorda, who was honored Thursday night during the Dodgers game against the San Francisco Giants.

“Baseball in the Olympics has never received the popularity that it should have. But this year, people are comparing this accomplishment to when the U.S. hockey team beat the Russians [in 1980]. To do something for your country and to win for your country is something special. It’s bigger than the World Series.”

Dodger Stadium fans showed their love for Lasorda and his latest accomplishment when a crowd of 44,513 gave him a two-minute standing ovation during a tribute in the middle of the third inning.

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Maybe Eric Karros, who played for Lasorda when he last managed the Dodgers in 1996, put it best when he said, “Tommy’s the best”.

For Lasorda, leading the U.S. to a gold medal with a group of unheralded group of players was made even sweeter because it came against the Cubans, who swept through the first two official Olympic baseball tournaments, going unbeaten in Barcelona and Atlanta.

“I didn’t even know their names or what position they play,” Lasorda said about the U.S. team. “It was a crash course. We only had six exhibition games for me to learn everything.”

The U.S. team started off strong, going undefeated early in the tournament before losing 6-1 to Cuba in a qualifying game, which featured a near bench-clearing brawl. Following the defeat, however, Lasorda was more confident than ever and juggled his rotation to make sure the team’s best pitcher, Ben Sheets, was available for the final game.

It turned out to be the right decision when Sheets blanked Cuba on three hits to give the U.S. its first Olympic baseball gold. In 1996, the Americans could only manage a bronze.

“Just watching our players receive their gold medals. That’s what it is all about,” Lasorda said. “And to see the Cubans crying. They just thought that there was no way that we could beat their team. No way we could beat them.”

When Lasorda, 73, accepted the nod to manage the U.S. team, many people thought he was crazy when he told the world the Americans would take home the gold before he had even looked at his roster.

The team he was given was put together this summer by USA Baseball and Major League Baseball, which set up a committee headed by former Yankee and Astro General Manager Bob Watson. The group was made up primarily of career minor leaguers and promising young prospects.

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Lasorda didn’t worry about the major league players he didn’t have to work with. Instead, he concentrated on making the players he did have better.

“When people told me that I didn’t have a [talented] team to work with, I asked, ‘Are they alive?’ and then I said ‘that’s all that counts,’ ” Lasorda said.

“It reminded me of when I took over as manager of the Dodgers in 1977 and I had 17 players on the team who had played for me in the minor leagues. I thought it was the same feeling working with these young players. Trying to build up their confidences and trying to get them to believe that they could beat anybody.”

Lasorda said he didn’t know how he would react once the competition began. After managing the Dodgers to two World Series and four National League pennants during his Hall of Fame managerial career, Lasorda wasn’t sure if he would have to generate his own excitement.

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“I thought that I would go over there and manage the club in a very subdued way . . . take it easy and just watch the games,” Lasorda said. “But all of the sudden in the first game against the Japanese, here I am screaming and hollering. . . . I did this against the Mets in the seventh game of the playoffs.”

Lasorda’s love affair with the Olympics grew with each passing game.

“It lasted throughout the entire Olympic Games,” he said. “When it finally was over, I was extremely exhausted because of the energy I put into it. I wanted this team to win so bad simply because baseball is our game. Baseball is America’s game and I don’t think we should allow anybody to beat us.”

So will Lasorda return to his role as manager for the U.S. team for the 2004 Olympics in Athens Greece?

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“I would do it for my country,” Lasorda said. “If I’m alive, they got me.”

*

No Tarnishing Golden Moment

Tom Lasorda showed his mettle, so where’s his medal? T.J. Simers’ column, D2

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San Francisco 5, Dodgers 3

Barry Bonds’ 49th home run lifts Giants as L.A. loses final home game of season. D5


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