If the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team was considered the miracle on ice, could the 2000 U.S. Olympic Baseball team be thought of as the miracle on grass? That’s the question author David Fanucchi attempts to answer, in his book called “Miracle on Grass, the enthralling story of Tommy Lasorda’s U.S. Olympic gold medal victory.
Over the last week or so we have been releasing our top ten Tommy Lasorda moments of all time, during what we have dubbed Tommy Lasorda Appreciation week. The countdown is a way to honor and recall the lifetime achievements, of one of the greatest Dodgers of all time, and our site namesake. Tommy Lasorda is the longest tenured Dodger in team history. The number two moment profiled on our Tommy countdown was his 2000 U.S. summer Olympic Baseball team gold medal victory as manager. To this day, Tommy is still the only manager in Baseball history to have won a World Series and an Olympic gold medal.
Recently I had a very special opportunity to sit down virtually and speak with David Fanucchi, the author of the newest Dodger book about Tommy Lasorda called “Miracle on Grass” Miracle on the grass is the complete story of Tommy’s 2000 Summer Olympic Baseball gold medal victory. From the beginning to the last out, David paints the tale of Tommy’s most tremendous managerial victory of all time, winning the U.S. their first Baseball Olympic gold medal ever. In his book, David profiles the group of ragtag semi-professional, and minor league prospects that Tommy Lasorda managed to victory in the 2000 Olympics at Sidney Australia.
I asked David ten questions about his experience at the 2000 Olympics. David was the director of communications for the U.S. team, and the team press officer. I have also included a short excerpt from the book. The best part of the book is, that David was not only an observer, and press officer, who was with the team the entire tournament, but he was also in charge of escorting Tommy Lasorda around during the various press events. So David was around Tommy a lot, and his first hand accounts with Tommy Lasorda, are intertwined throughout the book. Anything about Tommy makes for a good read, but the recording of Tommy, and the United States gold medal victory over Cuba is quite extraordinary.
Listed below is an excerpt from his book, and the interview questions we asked him. Lasorda’s Lair is happy to endorse Miracle on Grass, not only to all Lasordas Lairians, and Tommy Lasorda fanatics, but to all Baseball fans, and Americans. You can purchase the book on amazon.com, or at this link here purchase Miracle on Grass. You can find more information on David’s website here www.davidfanucchi.com, and on twitter, and facebook, here and here.
You make us all proud Tommy! Enjoy guys, and go out and grab a copy of Miracle on Grass!
This excerpt is from Chapter 9: Selecting Olympians
Team USA finally convened and came together for the first time on September 1 in San Diego, as the United States Olympic Committee had set up the entire USA Olympic Team delegation processing center at the U.S. Naval Base there on the San Diego coastline.
Once all of the USA staff members had arrived on-site, USA Baseball Executive Director Paul Seiler held a brief meeting, and then Team USA Manager Tommy Lasorda took the entire group of approximately 20 people (all of his coaches and non-player personnel associated with Team USA) out to dinner at his favorite local Italian restaurant. Always a lover of pasta, Lasorda saw it as an opportunity to build some camaraderie among the people who had given him this opportunity and had worked so hard to bring this team together. “We got a great idea that night what traveling with Tommy Lasorda and living with him for a month was going to be like,” said Team USA Administrator Steve Cohen, who would become one of Lasorda’s closest confidants. “He held court, served up the grand meal, toasted with some red wine, and had a lot of laughs. And all I know is that there was no bill to be found at the end of the night. It was a great time: We were all filled with such anticipation and excitement about what we were about to take part in.”
USA Baseball had planned to hold their team’s only stateside workout at Qualcomm Stadium the next morning, where the media could come and interview players and coaches and get their first look at the American baseball team wearing the red, white, and blue. That would be Lasorda’s first chance to address his players and to also tell the world how excited he was about putting on the USA uniform. Lasorda had missed wearing any baseball uniform, for that matter, and being in a dugout as well, and now that he was back managing a ballclub for the first time in over five years, he was basking in the spotlight that went with it.
“If they have the same attitude about going there as I have,” Lasorda said of his players, “then you’re going to see a bunch of guys that really want to win.”
The exposure Lasorda brought to their operation was also important to USA Baseball. What better way to ensure that their team and the sport of baseball wasn’t going to be overshadowed by the track stars, gymnasts, and swimmers who usually dominate Olympic Games media coverage, than by hiring baseball’s most recognizable and enthusiastic ambassador?
“We were very fortunate to have him,” said Team USA Selection Committee Chairman Bob Watson. “There’s no question about it.” While both sides needed each other, Lasorda wasn’t ashamed to admit his need might have been greater. He lobbied for the job for several months and jumped at the chance when it was officially offered to him back in May.
“When they called and said they wanted me to be the coach, I was so elated, so proud,” Lasorda said. “I was honored. People think I’m wacky when I say how important this is to me, to be able to do something for my country. But I think it’s an honor and a privilege.”
In fact, Lasorda went so far as to say his appointment as Olympic manager overshadowed all the other high points of his Hall of Fame career, including the Cooperstown induction itself.
“The Olympics are something special to me,” he said that day in San Diego. “I’ve done everything in the game of baseball. I started from the bottom as a player and I reached the major leagues as a player. I started at the bottom as a manager and I reached the major leagues as a manager. And then I was fortunate enough to be inducted into baseball’s Hall of Fame. This is even greater. This is the utmost right here. This is a tremendous chapter in my life. There’s nobody that’s going to take it any more serious than me.”
Lasorda planned to immerse himself in the Olympic experience, to participate in the opening ceremonies and to live with the U.S. athletes in the Olympic Village. He planned to treat every moment as the last hurrah of his career he knew this could be, and to share his unique brand of motivational speak with anyone who would listen.
“I want to be with all of the athletes from the United States. I want to pull for them all. I want to be part of the team, no matter what sport they were competing in. I want to know them and be able to tell them how proud I am of them. I can’t wait until we walk into that stadium, and knowing that out of all those countries, I’m representing the greatest. That’s going to be the main thrill for me, to walk in that opening parade. I get chills watching it on TV. Just think what I’m going to feel like doing it.”
Lasorda’s Olympic fervor stemmed from a sense of patriotism instilled in his youth. His father Sabatino came to the United States from Italy shortly after World War I. He married and supported a family of five sons (Tommy being the second) by driving a truck for a rock quarry in Pennsylvania. It was a hard life, but one for which Lasorda says his father was forever thankful because of the opportunities his adopted country provided.
“My father used to sit at the head of the table,” Lasorda said. “And he’d say to us five boys, ‘You guys are very lucky to be born in the greatest country in the world. You do everything you can to keep it that way. If you have to fight for your country, you must do it. And, maybe, you might even have to give up your life for your country.’ Now, that’s a father, speaking in broken English, talking about patriotism. He wasn’t born in this country. But he came here, and he wanted his children to grow up in this country. I’ve served my country. I was in the United States Army and I felt proud to do that. I wore that uniform with pride, and now I want to wear this uniform with pride. Because to me, this is bigger than the World Series.”
A renowned motivational speaker, Lasorda planed to instill a similar sense of duty and national pride in his Olympic players.
“I will tell our players, ‘Hey, you don’t represent your hometown or that high school you came from or that organization you’re in,’” Lasorda said. “‘You represent the United States of America. And by golly, you’re going to be proud and you’re going to play your hearts out for the good of this country.’”
Of course, that cheer-leading might only carry Team USA so far against the incredible talent of the Cubans, the advanced skill and precise pitching of the Japanese, and the overall efficiency of the Koreans. Even the Italian team and the host Australians (headed by former Brewers all-star catcher Dave Nilsson) could threaten Team USA’s quest to reach the medal round of the eight-team tournament.
But Lasorda was well aware of the challenges ahead. He knew that the Cuban national team split an exhibition series against the Baltimore Orioles just the past year and that that same Cuban roster would be in Sydney. He knew Japan would have players from its major-league teams. He knew the Korean league was shutting down in order to send its best players to Sydney, and the Italian team would feature several American-trained players of Italian descent. His response to all of that? “The only thing I can say is, we’re not going 6,000 miles to lose.”
1. What Originally inspired you to write about this story? What first drew you into the story of the 2000 Olympic USA Baseball team?
I was the Director of Communications for USA Baseball at the time, so it was my job as the Team Press Officer to work with the 2000 Olympic Team. That’s ultimately how I came about knowing all of the behind-the-scenes information about what went on. It is simply my belief that they are the greatest team that USA Baseball has ever put together, in the history of the organization, and that includes their 2006 and 2009 World Baseball Classic teams. It’s hard to argue against that, based on what the 2000 Olympic Team accomplished. Not only are they the only Olympic baseball team to win an official gold medal for the United States, but they are likely to end up being the only one forever, unless the sport gets reinstated into the Games someday. On top of all that, their story is not very well known, and I wanted to create a larger spotlight on how this group of people – not only the players, but the coaches and administrators as well – pulled off this great victory. I think a lot of people might know that the USA Baseball team won the Olympic gold medal in 2000, but not many people know how they did it, in such dramatic fashion. The entire story deserves to be told.
2. What was your first impression of Tommy Lasorda?
I first met him when we introduced him as our Team USA Manager for the Olympics, at a Press Conference at Dodger Stadium in May of 2000. He immediately liked me because I am Italian, and we got along very well together. My first impression was that he was going to be the perfect fit for the role we needed him to play.
3. What was it like to be there first hand, and witness the medal round games?
I knew immediately after the gold medal game was over, that being a part of this team (as their official press officer) was the coolest and greatest thing I would accomplish in my career. To be there first hand to witness the United States win a gold medal in the Olympics in the sport of baseball, I will never forget those moments. They are etched into my fabric now.
4. What do you think most of the player’s opinion was of Tommy?
I think they loved having someone like him garner all of the media attention, so that they could focus on playing the games on the field. They also loved hearing his unique brand of inspirational messaging before games, and during them as well, but they also knew what they had to do in order to win. And I think they all loved the way he believed in their abilities, and trusted them.
5. Did you think USA would win the gold originally? If not, what was their biggest weakness on the field?
We went over to Australia with the hopes of medaling – because that’s all any Olympian or team can realistically hope for. So many things have to go your way, just to get onto the medal stand as one of the top three. We knew our pitching staff was our strength, it was just a matter of whether our offense could score enough runs. I’m not sure the team had a real huge weakness, because our defense was stellar as well. Perhaps maybe our speed was our weakness, we didn’t have any starting position players that could steal bases.
6. Who did you think was the USA’s primary competition?
Well, Cuba of course was the primary competitor – they were and still are an international baseball powerhouse, and were coming off two straight Olympic gold medals in 1992 and 1996. They rarely ever lost a game, let alone an event. Japan was going to be extremely competitive as well with their very disciplined professionals, and we knew Korea was going to be a challenge too. And you couldn’t count out the host country from Australia either.
7. Who do you think was team USA’s MVP, and top pitcher?
There’s no question that it was Ben Sheets. He was the top prospect in the Brewers farm system at the time, and the three games he pitched in the Olympic Games were tremendous. He threw 22 innings and allowed only 11 hits and one earned run, for a 0.41 ERA. And in the gold medal game against Cuba, he was simply lights out. He threw a complete-game, three hit shutout, and only allowed three singles to the most dominating international baseball team in the world. Cuba did not advance a runner past first base in the entire game. It was the greatest performance of his life.
8. Did Tommy share any interesting stories with you, while you were there?
I did get to know Tommy very well, as I escorted him around to the many media interviews that he needed to do on a daily basis. We did not get into many personal stories, as we were focused solely on what was ahead of us. But my favorite stories now are the ones that I was able to create with him in Australia, just seeing him interact with the players, and also when we had time to just sit and talk over dinner about the Games, and what was happening, how he felt. He was so excited to be involved in the Olympics.
9. Where do you think this moment ranks among Tommy’s greatest accomplishments?
I think if you asked him that question even today, he will say that winning the gold medal for the United States is his single greatest achievement, even more so that winning two world series titles for the Dodgers. He has been quoted saying that numerous times – that because this victory was for the entire country, and it made all of America happy. When he won with the Dodgers, only the Dodgers fans were happy. He has been saying that for 12 years now.
10. Which moment stood out to you as the best moment of the games?
For me, the most thrilling moment was when Doug Mientkiewicz hit a walk-off, home run to beat Korea in the bottom of the 9th inning, in the semifinal game that put us into the gold medal game against Cuba. That semifinal was so tense and dramatic, that it was gut-wrenching. If we had lost, we would have had to play for a bronze medal. So, Doug’s home run was such a dramatic thing, that it sticks out in my memory.
I would like to thank David for taking the time to answer our questions. Please don’t forget to go out and buy a copy of Miracle on Grass.