Doug Mientkiewicz can still vividly recall the last time the U.S. Baseball team played in a semifinal game. It was eight years ago in Sydney and the Twins farm-hand was a first baseman for Team U.S.A. "The semifinal game (against South Korea) just didn't have a good feel to it" Mientkiewicz told me last week via phone. "I remember it was raining, we weren't playing well, it just seemed like nothing good was happening to us."
Trailing 2-0 for most of the game, the Americans tied the score up in the seventh and the contest went into extra innings. Fast forward to the 11th, when Mientkiewicz stepped back up to the plate to face South Korea's Chong Tae-hyon. "The sidearm righty (Chong-Tae-hyon), I'll never forget it," he said. "I remember stepping out (of the batter's box) the pitch before ... and I remember thinking "How have I elevated the ball against sidearm guys in the past?" "I remember thinking, "Ok, get an off-speed pitch and get out in front of it and see what happens ..."
What happened next was a moment Mientkiewicz will treasure for the rest of his life. "Sure enough when the ball came up out of his hand, the first (thought) in my mind was "Game over," I swung and I hit it and I literally was in complete and utter shock."
Mientkiewicz's blast put the Americans into the gold medal game against Cuba, the same team that the 2008 U.S. squad will be facing early this morning in Beijing in another Olympic semifinal. To this day, Mientkiewicz still says he has a hard time putting his Olympic walk-off moment into words. "The pitch took an hour to get to the plate in my mind," he said. "And when I swung and I hit it and I was like "Holy (crap) what did I just do?"
Mientkiewicz had created the moment that every baseball player dreams about; only his moment came on the world's biggest sporting stage. "I became a six year old kid running around the bases ... all I could think about was just get to home plate, there's nothing better than seeing all your teammates standing there waiting to beat the everlasting crap out of you when you get to the plate."
To understand how much that moment meant to Mientkiewicz, you have to appreciate the path he took to get to the 2000 Olympic Games. The Florida State product actually played for Team U.S.A. in 1994 as part of its World Cup team and had hoped to represent his country at the '96 Games in Atlanta. After being drafted in '95 by the Minnesota Twins though, and with doubts that he would actually make the Olympic roster in '96, he signed a professional contract and began his career. At the time, the U.S.A. was only sending college players to the Olympics, so he was no longer eligible. His decision to forgo a chance to play on the U.S. team crushed his mom, who wanted to see her son play in Atlanta. "I know my mom was heartbroken," Mientkiewicz said. "We were a big Olympic family ... she could not watch the Atlanta Games because she was so bent up about it."
Mientkiewicz worked his way up the minor league ladder and made his major league debut in September of '98. He spent the '99 season in the majors as well, but couldn't hit consistently enough, and found himself in Triple-A during the 2000 season. He was at a crossroads in his professional career. The silver lining was that U.S.A. Baseball had decided to start sending professionals over to the Games, so Mientkiewicz had another chance to make his Olympic dream a reality.
It's clear that Mientkiewicz felt many emotions after being named to the team, but it was a note from his wife that is one of the things he remembers most. "She wrote a letter that she wouldn't let me open until I got on the plane," he said. "The gist of it was pretty much, "Don't you dare go 3,000 miles without doing something special."
Just before the Games began, Mientkiewicz found himself in a serious slump. He worried that his dream might end, before it started. "I'll never forget Reggie Smith, our hitting coach, came up to me and was like, "Hey, are you going to start hitting, cause we're threatning to send you home, I remember I said something like, what do I want to hit for now, it doesn't count ... it was kind of a false confidence thing to keep them from sending me home."
Once Mientkiewicz got to Sydney he burst out of his funk. He went 12-for-29 during the tournament and had two home runs and eight RBI. Having his entire family in Sydney made the experience that much better. "It seemed like every time I had a moment out there, my family was behind where I was looking," Mientkiewicz said.
When the Americans defeated Cuba to win the gold medal, Mientkiewicz says the first people he saw in the stands when he looked up were his family. Some of his friends have jokingly given him a hard time because of his reaction to the moment. "Most of the pictures I have standing on the medal stand, are (of me) bawling like a baby," Mientkiewicz said. "You start thinking back to all the times your parents drove you all over the country for you to play this game, and you start thinking about how many sacrifices they made for you to get to this point."
Mientkiewicz still reminisces about his Olympic experience with some of his old teammates. "That team was as close as close could be," he said. "I don't think you could have picked 24 other guys that could have bonded any quicker."
The 2000 team's story is so good that Mientkiewicz and a few of his teammates have been helping a screenwriter put together a screenplay for a movie about their journey to the gold medal. Mientkiewicz just wishes more players could have the Olympic experience, and is sad that baseball will no longer be recognized as an Olympic sport. "I really feel that the United States not going (to the Games) in '04 killed it ... because I know so many countries baseball-wise want to beat us, and I think (baseball) kind of lost its aura (as an Olympic sport) when (the U.S.) didn't qualify."
He knows how much of an impact the 2000 Games had on his career. "I know what (the Olympic experience) did for me ... it totally set me in motion again, it put my name back on the map, it gave me confidence ... I came back (from Sydney) with a little more belief in myself."
Mientkiewicz, who currently plays for the Pittsburgh Pirates, has been reminded a lot recently of his Olympic heroics. "Every time (the Olympics) are on, or somebody asks me about it, (my teammates) start singing "Glory Days," he said. "I get ripped on every day."
Mientkiewicz will take all the jokes you throw at him, he wouldn't trade his Olympic experience for anything. "It was the best two weeks I've ever had in my life playing the game of baseball."
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