For current and former Yankees, suiting up for the Olympic games was an experience like no other
By Hilary Giorgi
Yankees Magazine |
Nearly five-and-a-half years before Masahiro Tanaka signed a deal with the Yankees that would earn him more than $100 million, he was standing on a baseball mound, representing something even greater than his own team.
Tanaka, like thousands of athletes before him, was soaking up the world stage. Millions of eyes across the globe were on him. But he wasn't thinking about his performance, and he wasn't thinking about his own stat line. He was thinking about the name on the front of his jersey.
Although he was a young rising star in Japan, Tanaka was not the centerpiece of this team. He was a role player, contributing just seven total innings -- all in relief -- and simply trying to help his team achieve its goal.
Stitched in red capital letters on the front of his jersey was the word "Japan," and he was fighting on behalf of his country for an Olympic medal against his eventual adopted home, Team USA.
Getting to the Games
Baseball is a global sport. Every summer in the United States, it is ever-present on TV and in the news, and with each year that the World Baseball Classic has been played, its audience has grown. And yet, there's just something special about the Olympic variety.
More than 20 former and current Yankees have taken part in Olympic baseball. Some played for Team USA, some for Cuba, and still others for countries such as Greece, Japan and the Netherlands. Among the group are World Series champions, All-Stars and even role players. Each has a different story, but all have the same takeaway: Representing your country at the Olympics is an enormous privilege.
Jim Abbott's list of accomplishments is long. He played 10 years in the Majors, including two seasons with the Yankees during which he threw a no-hitter, and he finished third in the American League Cy Young Award voting after an 18-win campaign in 1991. And yet even with all that, one memory stands out almost above the rest.
"There's great pride in playing in the Major Leagues, but when you play for your country, there's something even more special, I think," he said. "The no-hitter that I pitched with the Yankees was an incredible moment. But the Olympics was a shared experience. I can't think of another team that I felt so close with and that I wanted to see do well. To win a gold medal with those guys, if I had never played another day of baseball, I would have felt as though I had a very proud baseball career."
Clay Bellinger's experience was more unique than most. Born in America, he competed for the Greek team when the 2004 games were in Athens and Greece was automatically entered into the baseball tournament. Because the country had no national team, it populated the Olympic roster with players of Greek descent. The opportunity to represent his heritage was the chance of Bellinger's lifetime.
"It was cool. It was different. It was weird," Bellinger recalled, explaining how he had to go to the Greek consulate in Los Angeles to apply for a Greek passport before being allowed to participate. "Any time you put a jersey on that's representing a country, that's unique and inspiring, and it's a great feeling knowing that you're representing a country of people."
For competitors, the moment of pride they feel pulling on their nation's colors is bred from the opportunity the Olympics has allowed. For baseball players, that opportunity has been erratic over the years.
Baseball in the Olympics has a long, complicated history. The first known baseball games played during Olympic competition came in the early 20th century -- exhibition games played mainly by track and field athletes. Eventually, actual baseball players found their way to the games, and America's pastime was played sporadically until 1964, when it disappeared for two decades.
It wasn't until the 1984 games in Los Angeles that baseball found its way back in. It was designated as a demonstration sport, like it had been in the past, with a round robin-style tournament between eight nations. As a demonstration sport, baseball competed for symbolic medals, but did not have official Olympic status; however, the return was a huge success, as more than 300,000 fans came out to Dodger Stadium to watch the tournament.
"Playing for your country, playing in Dodger Stadium, playing in front of 45,000 or 50,000 people for the first time in your career, that was really something," said Yankees bench coach Rob Thomson, a member of Team Canada that year. "That will get your heart going really quick."
Thomson's Canadian team won just a single game in Olympic play, but the victory was a big one: a 6-4 win over the eventual tournament winner, Japan. The United States was the runner-up that year, and one young fan who came out to watch the team was inspired by his country's performance.
"I watched those guys play, and I remember thinking I really wanted to do that," said Jason Giambi, who played with the Yankees from 2002 through 2008. "I had it worked out in my head that when I was a junior in college, it would be 1992 and I really wanted to play in the Olympics."
Eight years later, he would get his chance, and this time, Team USA would be competing as an official Olympic sport, with baseball having been elevated from its second-class status.
From 1992 through 2008, baseball enjoyed the gravitas of being "official," and six nations walked away with hardware, including one gold and two bronze medals for the U.S. squad. Prior to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, though, baseball and softball (which had been added to the Olympic program in 1996) were voted out of the games.
As the International Olympic Committee finalizes 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo, baseball and softball have found their way back into the program. Regardless of what happens on the field four years from now, though, baseball's past within the global games has been filled with dramatic and thrilling moments, many brought on by some names that Yankees fans will surely recognize.
Bringing Home Gold
Looking over the 1988 Team USA roster, four future Yankees -- Abbott, Tino Martinez, Robin Ventura and Dave Silvestri -- stand out. Each played a significant role in helping the United States win its first Olympic tournament.
Building chemistry on a championship club is difficult, even with years of cultivating relationships and building bonds in the clubhouse. On the national team, the challenge proved easier than might be expected.
In 1988, the Olympics allowed only amateur players to compete in the games, which held true until 2000, when the competition was opened to professionals. So Team USA was put together using top college players from around the country. In the weeks before the Olympics, a group of unknowns traveled around the country and overseas, learning to play together against competition that was bound to be older and more experienced. The chemistry built naturally, and so did the weight of what the team was trying to accomplish.
"You're traveling around the U.S. by bus, playing a game a night," Ventura said. "It seemed like you were playing, driving, getting to the next place. Play, drive, next place. We were all 19 and 20 years old. We had a lot of fun, and we played hard. There's just something special, though, when you have 'USA' on your uniform, and you're playing against other countries and they're older than you. It just seemed that the competitive part of everybody came out."
The team had a drive to be successful, Ventura says, and a desire to do whatever it took to bring honor to their country, so when it came time to play on the Olympic stage in Seoul, South Korea, any egos that may have loomed large disappeared.
"All these guys were stars at their colleges, at their universities," Abbott said. "They were the cleanup hitters, they were the starters, but there was a lot of sacrifice on that team. There were guys who hit way down in the order when they were used to being the cleanup hitter. There were pitchers who were used to being starters who moved to the bullpen. And yet, none of that mattered. It was all about accomplishing this goal and winning the gold medal while going up against these great teams."
"It didn't matter who did well," Ventura echoed. "It was the fact that we won, and we knew who we were representing."
In South Korea, the U.S. team played five games, winning its first two contests before losing a tough one to Canada in Game 3. The Americans still reached the semifinals, in which they defeated Puerto Rico to set up a gold medal match against Japan, the reigning Olympic tournament winners.
Abbott was lined up to make the start for America, and the 21-year-old was admittedly nervous.
"I had to go out there and represent my country," he said. "It was the Olympics -- it was the last game our team would ever play together -- so there was a lot of pressure. I remember not being able to sleep the night before the game."
The lefty battled through. He didn't pitch a perfect game by any means, but he kept his team in the competition and allowed another hero to rise.
Martinez, a young first baseman from the University of Tampa, proved to be the difference-maker. He hit two home runs and had four RBI to back up Abbott as the Americans clinched their first Olympic tournament win by a score of 5-3.
"It was one of the happiest moments in all of our lives," Abbott said. "You have to catch your breath because you've seen people on that podium before, and it's just hard to imagine that you're there, and you're up there with your teammates. … I'd hate to say anything that sounds cliché because it's the furthest thing from cliché. It's just so out of the ordinary. It's an extraordinary feeling."
America wouldn't get to experience that feeling again for another 12 years. Although the U.S. came home with a bronze in 1996, the 1992 squad -- which included Giambi and former Yankees pitcher Ron Villone -- fell in the bronze medal game to rival Japan.
In 2000, though, everything changed. For the first time ever, professional players were allowed to represent their country. For the United States, that meant players would be drawn from a pool of Minor Leaguers from teams that had given their prospects permission to compete.
The talent pool was deep and even included pitcher CC Sabathia, who, ultimately, did not make the team, which was managed by Dodgers legend Tommy Lasorda.
Two future Yankees did make the squad, though: first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz and pitcher Todd Williams.
Mientkiewicz had a long Big League career, one that included a Gold Glove Award in 2001 and a championship with the Red Sox in 2004. But he believes, if not for his participation in the Olympics, none of it would have been possible.
"I don't know if my Big League career would have turned out as long as it did, or if it would have happened at all, if I didn't gain the confidence from what Tommy Lasorda and all those guys showed in me," he said. "I felt like even if I can't play in the Big Leagues, then I've done something that not a lot of people have ever done. And that gave me a lot of confidence to kind of keep going, and it gave me a lot more belief in what I was doing."
A career .271 hitter in the Bigs, Mientkiewicz was prolific in the Olympics, batting .414 with two home runs and eight RBI.
His biggest moment came in the semifinal match against Korea. With the game tied in the ninth inning, Mientkiewicz sent a one-out 2-1 pitch from reliever Seok-Jin Park over the wall to send the Americans back to the gold medal game.
"As soon as he let the ball go, I saw the ball come off his fingers, and that still picture, I'll ride that to my grave," Mientkiewicz said. "I remember getting out in front of it and hitting it and throwing both arms in the air, and I remember throwing my bat as high as I could and running to first. It was a surreal moment where I was running the bases … and it was obviously intense and joyous, and running around the bases, it was the best thing to ever happen to me.
"That doesn't happen to a guy like me. That happens to your Derek Jeters or your David Ortizes, guys that are first-ballot Hall of Famers. It doesn't happen to just average Joes like me."
America went on to play Cuba the next day in the gold medal game, winning 4-0 to put Mientkiewicz and his other "average Joe" teammates back on top of the podium.
"You look back to the Mark McGwires and the Tino Martinezes, Jim Abbotts, those guys got to put the uniform on," said Mientkiewicz, who named his boat "Olympic Gold" in honor of this accomplishment. "I think I speak for those guys when I say it was an experience where no matter what they did in baseball -- good, bad or indifferent -- those three weeks to a month really stand out in their lives."
In every sport, in every league, there is always a winner and a loser; heroes emerge. But in the Olympic Games, playing the part of the hero brings more than just glory to yourself or your team; it brings joy to an entire nation.
"With a World Series, there's only one set of fans that really get to celebrate for the year," Mientkiewicz said. "But when you win a gold medal for your country, I think everybody cheers for you."
The Ultimate Honor
In 2008, Tanaka jogged to the mound in Beijing with the Japanese flag embroidered on his jersey.
At 19 years old, he was the youngest player on the Japanese team, and he was squared up against the United States of America in a round-robin game, fighting to help advance his team.
Despite playing just three games in those 2008 Olympics, he understood the magnitude of the moment.
"It's an honor to be able to represent a country," he said. "If you're able to do well in those competitions, then it kind of leads to the people back in Japan being more enthused and happy about it, and also, that can lead to people being more interested in the game of baseball. So in that sense, I think it's a great thing to be able to play for your country on a stage such as the Olympics."
Japan lost that game to the United States, which went on to capture bronze in what, for now, was the last time baseball made an appearance in the Olympics.
Those who took part can't wait to share the experience with the next generation.
"You pick things as a kid that you'd love to accomplish, like get drafted by a Major League team and play in the big leagues," Giambi said. "For me, playing in the Olympics was one of those dreams I wanted to accomplish."
Hilary Giorgi is the associate editor of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the August issue of Yankees Magazine. Get this article and more delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription at yankees.com/publications.