The U.S. baseball team won't defend its Olympic gold medal next summer in Athens, its repeat hopes derailed Friday by a set of quirky circumstances and a stunning loss to Mexico in the quarterfinals of an Olympic qualifying tournament at Panama City.
"I'm not surprised, I'm shocked," said former Dodger manager Tom Lasorda, who cajoled a team of largely unknown youngsters to an upset of Cuba and an emotional triumph at the 2000 Sydney Games. "It's sad. I was pulling so hard for them to be able to win down there and compete in the Olympics.
"I've done a lot of things in baseball and accomplished a lot, but for us to do what we did at the Olympics was by far the greatest thing that ever happened to me. I managed in four World Series and won two championships and eight division titles, but when you win the pennant or World Series, Dodger fans are happy but Giant fans and Cincinnati Reds' fans hate you. You win the gold medal, all of America is happy."
The U.S. team, managed by Montreal Expo Manager Frank Robinson, was 3-0 in pool play and had outscored its opponents, 21-0, becoming a favorite to win one of two Olympic berths at stake in the tournament. Mexico was 0-3 in pool play but advanced to the quarterfinals because the Bahamas, an original member of Mexico's pool, failed to field a team for the tournament.
An outstanding pitching performance by former New York Met Rigo Beltran, who limited the U.S. to one run and three hits in seven innings, was the key to Mexico's 2-1 victory Friday. The U.S. had taken a 1-0 lead in the fourth inning on a home run by Justin Leone, who plays in the Seattle Mariners' minor league system, but Mexico pulled even on a home run in the fifth by Ray Martinez off Cleveland Indian prospect Jason Stanford.
Mexico went ahead in the ninth on Luis A. Garcia's home run off Brian Bruney, who had 26 saves last season in the Arizona Diamondbacks' minor league system. The U.S. got runners to second and third with one out in the bottom of the ninth, but Mexico reliever Isidro Marquez preserved the victory by getting Leone to ground back to the mound and getting Gerald Laird on a popup.
"It was a well-pitched game by their pitchers," Robinson said. "We were not able to do much until the ninth inning, and it was not enough."
Roger Clemens had mused about pitching for the U.S. at Athens, but the team in Panama consisted mostly of minor leaguers plus former major leaguers Mike Lamb and Todd Williams and Atlanta rookie pitcher Horacio Ramirez. Lasorda's Sydney squad, playing in the first tournament to include professional players, helped launch the careers of Ben Sheets, Roy Oswalt and Doug Mientkiewicz.
"I think it's a validation of the internationalization of the game," said Sandy Alderson, executive vice president of baseball operations for Major League Baseball and the highest-ranking U.S. baseball official with the team in Panama. "As we know, anything can happen in a game or a short series of games."
Lasorda said he had been told Thursday the team's chances of advancing looked good. "Then I find out we're out," Lasorda said by phone from Vero Beach, Fla., where he's working with the Kintetsu Buffaloes of the Japanese League.
"I just feel bad those kids won't get a chance to experience what we experienced. The great thing for me was I finally get a chance since I was in the Army to do something for my country. I told my players, 'This game doesn't belong to Korea, Japan, Cuba or Italy, and we're not going to let anybody keep the gold medal from where it belongs, in the U.S.' To see those young players play their hearts out was incredible.
"Coaches don't get a medal, but I tell people I got my medal when [Olympic officials] put medals around the players' necks. I got my medal when I heard our anthem and saw our flag raised.... People talk about the [1980 U.S.] hockey team beating Russia being great, but to me, beating the Cubans was bigger and tougher to do, but we did not receive the credit the hockey team did."
Lasorda said he probably won't watch the Olympic baseball tournament next summer. "I don't think so," he said. "Not if the Americans aren't in it."
Associated Press contributed to this report.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Fair to Medaling
Olympic medalists in baseball. Team USA was eliminated from the 2004 Games Friday:
1984 LOS ANGELES*
Gold: Japan; Silver: USA; Bronze: Chinese Taipei
* U.S. Notables: Mark McGwire, Will Clark, Barry Larkin, B.J. Surhoff
1988 SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA*
Gold: USA; Silver: Japan; Bronze: Puerto Rico
* U.S. Notables: Robin Ventura, Jim Abbott, Ed Sprague, Tino Martinez
1992 BARCELONA, SPAIN
Gold: Cuba; Silver: Chinese Taipei; Bronze: Japan
* U.S. Notables: Nomar Garciaparra, Jason Giambi, Charles Johnson, Darren Dreifort
Gold: Cuba; Silver: Japan; Bronze: USA
* U.S. Notables: Jacque Jones, Troy Glaus, Travis Lee, Matt LeCroy
2000 SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA
Gold: USA; Silver: Cuba; Bronze: South Korea
* U.S. Notables: Ben Sheets, Doug Mientkiewicz, Roy Oswalt, Ryan Franklin
* In 1984 and 1988, baseball was a demonstration sport.