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BASEBALL PLUS | CHATTER

His Big Moment: Winning the Gold

September 24, 2000|BILL SHAIKIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Chatter, the Olympic Games edition . . .

The distinction between patriotism and nationalism tends to blur during the Olympic Games, when those who truly love the United States must share space on the gold-medal bandwagon with yahoos chanting "U-S-A!"

One sign of a true patriot: He ranks winning a gold medal as his favorite moment in sports, ahead of pitching a no-hitter for the most storied franchise in baseball, the New York Yankees.

He's Jim Abbott, former Angel, resident of Corona del Mar, and member of the U.S. baseball team that won gold in Seoul in 1988.

"I still think winning the gold medal was as exciting as pitching a no-hitter in the major leagues, even more so," Abbott said.

"It was such a culmination, all this shared joy. That's what made it special. A no-hitter is something all your teammates participate in, but to win an Olympic medal and share that with 25 guys and the coaching staff, it magnified it that much more."

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The Boys of the Summer Games: Abbott pitched a complete game as the United States beat Japan, 5-3, to win the gold medal. First baseman Tino Martinez, now with the Yankees, hit two home runs.

"I remember that last game, the final out of the ninth inning and the celebration, jumping up and down, everybody piling on top of each other," Abbott said. "That even meant more than standing on the podium and getting the medal.

"It was the culmination of a dream for all 25 guys. A lot of my best friends today are from that team."

Those friends include Martinez, pitchers Andy Benes, Ben McDonald and Charles Nagy and infielders Ed Sprague and Robin Ventura.

Ventura's face is the first that comes to mind when Abbott recalls the gold-medal game. The last three outs came on consecutive pitches, all ground balls to third baseman Ventura.

"On the first one, he made a high throw to Tino, so high he had to jump to catch it," Abbott said. "On the next one, he threw it a little bit lower, but Tino still had to jump to catch it.

"The next pitch, they hit it right to Robin again, and I can hear [shortstop Dave] Silvestri screaming at him, 'Hit him in the chest!' He did, and then everybody went crazy."

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The goody bag: One of the lesser-known perks of playing major league baseball is that you never have to carry your suitcase. If you play for the Angels, you drop your bags at Edison Field before the team flight, and your bags magically appear outside the door of your hotel room.

Abbott's Olympic squad didn't enjoy that perk, but there were others.

"We called it Christmas Day when we got there," he said. "You got a whole mountain of luggage, all filled up with opening ceremonies stuff, closing ceremonies stuff, sweats, workout clothes, jerseys and things . . .

"We were still carrying our bags at that point, so I couldn't go around too crazy getting all this stuff."

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Olympic trivia, novice level: Will Clark and Mark McGwire played on the U.S. team at the 1984 Los Angeles Games. Each developed into an all-star first baseman in the major leagues, but which one played first base for the Olympic team?

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Olympic trivia, expert level: Another future all-star, Barry Larkin, was a backup infielder for the U.S. team in 1984. The starting second baseman never played in the major leagues, and the starting shortstop never hit a home run in the majors. Who were they?

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Beach boy: When third baseman Phil Nevin played for the U.S. team in the 1992 Barcelona Games, he might have needed an explanation of Spanish currency or an introduction to tapas, the tasty appetizers that grace Spanish bars.

But Nevin, who grew into stardom this summer with the San Diego Padres, grew up in Orange County. Beaches needed no explanation, or so he thought until he wandered onto the beach adjacent to the Olympic village.

Nevin, who attended El Dorado High and Cal State Fullerton, discovered that European culture is, well, a little different on the sand. He had to pop his eyes back into place.

"It was weird walking out onto the beach," he said. "It was an all-nude beach."

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Trivia answers: McGwire played first base, Clark played left field, Flavio Alfaro of San Diego State played second base and Gary Green of Oklahoma State played shortstop.

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