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SYDNEY 2000 / SUMMER OLYMPIC GAMES

Mientkiewicz Keeps U.S. Unbeaten in Grand Style

September 21, 2000|BILL DWYRE | TIMES SPORTS EDITOR

BLACKTOWN, Australia — To say that the U.S. beat South Korea in Olympic baseball Wednesday night doesn't quite capture it.

Nor is it enough to say that:

* The score was 4-0;

* The game was decided by a grand slam;

* The attendance at Olympic Park Baseball Stadium was 13,818, a sellout;

* The victory, on a day when Cuba lost for the first time in Olympic baseball, made Tom Lasorda's unheralded group the only unbeaten team left in the tournament.

Nope, this was one of those Olympic moments, tired as you may already be of the phrase. This is why NBC paid billions of dollars to get exclusive rights for its cameras. In the next few days, perhaps all the way to the end of the Games, you will see this over and over again. And you probably won't ever get tired of it.

It is the bottom of the eighth inning, and the bases are loaded for left-handed-hitting first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz. There are two out, the count is 3-and-2, the score 0-0.

Mientkiewicz is no fuzzy-faced youngster. Nor is he some grizzled veteran who has been here and done this so often that he has no feel for the moment. Mientkiewicz is 25 years old, has one full season, 1999, as the starting first baseman for the Minnesota Twins, where he hit .229 in 327 at-bats and led the league in fielding percentage, making only three errors in 938 chances.

Because David Ortiz beat him out this year, Mientkiewicz spent the season with the Twins' triple-A Salt Lake City club. The U.S. Olympic team was chosen from minor leaguers. Had he been back with the Twins, he wouldn't have been here, digging in against Korean right-hander Pil-Jung Jin, who had come in two batters earlier.

Mientkiewicz (pronounced mint-KAY-vich) was surprised at how hard Jin was throwing.

"I didn't get a hittable pitch until three-and-two," he would say later.

He played with Jin while he tried to figure him out. He moved up in the batter's box for one pitch, then back a bit for the next.

In the outfield bleachers, the Korean crowd that had been waving the flag and doing the wave and singing and blowing whistles all night, giving the place more of a feel of a high school football game, was at fever pitch. It was the kind of game, leading to the kind of moment, that, every so often, makes baseball unmatchable in athletic drama. They make movies out of this stuff and give them titles like "The Natural."

On the bases in front of Mientkiewicz were Mike Neill, who had singled to start the inning; Ernie Young, who had worked a walk, and Mike Kinkade, who also had walked in a tough at-bat against Jin in which he battled and fouled off a few and eventually got down to first to load the bases.

It was fitting that Neill was there, because he had started all this a few days ago with a towering homer in the 13th inning to beat Japan in the U.S. opener. And it was even more fitting that Kinkade was there because, in the sixth inning, he had saved the day with a backhanded stab off a one-hop shot at third that he turned into an inning-ending double play by stepping on the bag and throwing to first.

All that was needed to complete the storybook setting was shortstop Adam Everett, rather than Young, on second base. Everett, like Kinkade, had saved the day with spectacular defense in the seventh, making two diving stops on balls hit on the ground. Both were "SportsCenter" highlight material.

Somewhere in the stands was Len Mientkiewicz. Len had put his son through a dress rehearsal for this hundreds of times. He was Doug's Little League coach. There was always a backstop in the backyard, a place to swing and learn and talk about 3-and-2, two out, bases loaded.

"He would talk about what I would do," Doug Mientkiewicz would say later. "He would tell me to keep my mind in the game. To think about one thing--getting that runner home. I never thought about hitting a home run, because he never let me. That's probably why I hit one, because he taught me to clear all that out of my head and just think about getting the runner home.

"In my backyard, in all the backyards where we lived, we always had three-and-two, two out, bases loaded."

Somewhere in the stands was Janice Mientkiewicz, wife of Len and mother of Doug. The Olympics had been her dream for her son. He had been on the national team and had a good shot in '96, but he turned pro in '95 and broke her heart. Then, when the rules changed and pros became eligible in '99, Doug was on the team, then off it again and devastated by that before he was put back on.

"The day I was able to call my mom and tell her I was on the team," he said, "was one of the happier days of my life."

Somewhere in the stands was the former Jodi Stoner, now Jodi Mientkiewicz. Before he left for the Olympics, she had written her husband a letter, something she does a lot. It had urged him to "do something grand." Later, after he had, he said, lovingly, "She really knows how to push my buttons."

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