In truth, USA Baseball did not get an enthusiastic response when it recruited its Olympic team. A lot of players were indifferent to the idea of playing for their country. Most general managers were reluctant to give up anyone from their rosters.
Ernie Young, well, he would have swum all the way to Australia and back to prove his worthiness for the cause.
"They handed out forms to us in June," Young said Wednesday night after the U.S. stunned Cuba, 4-0, to win its first baseball gold. "I filled that thing out right away. I mailed it and faxed it and I called them, all in the same day. I wanted to be here."
Young, a 31-year-old veteran, was having a decent year for Memphis, the Cardinals' Triple-A affiliate. He had 35 homers and 97 RBIs. But despite hitting 30 homers for the second year in a row, he was buried in the minors and didn't see much hope of getting recalled.
"So I went through the whole process for the Olympics," he said. "I had to take different drug tests. I called about a week before they picked the team, asking for them to tell me what was going on. I said, 'Just give me a hint.' I was getting excited."
He made the team. The U.S. squad needed some veterans, guys who had been around the block and wouldn't let the kids become awed by their surroundings -- or by the Cubans. They wanted good people, too. In the end, he was everything the manager, Tommy Lasorda, expected. Young hit .385. He drove in eight runs. He gave his body, getting hit by pitches four times. He gave his mouth, serving as the team's vocal leader.
"I've probably got the biggest mouth on the team," said Young, a Chicago native. "I've always been very boisterous. I'll take it on myself, especially when I'm around younger guys."
Young was in the middle of everything at this Olympics. In the Americans' loss to Cuba in the preliminaries, he was hit by a pitch and felt he had been thrown at. Later, catcher Pat Borders had to be restrained after being spiked on a play at the plate. The game became a low-level international incident.
The U.S. players got ripped in some American papers after that game. See, the critics said, that's what happens when we send our pros over. At some point, they turn ugly. You'd have thought they'd smashed furniture in the athletes' village, like the U.S. ice hockey players.
Anyway, about 45 minutes before the gold medal game, Young told Lasorda there was going to be a players-only meeting. He told his teammates not to go into the final with chips on their shoulders. Forget about the hostility with the Cubans and play ball.
"We can't let other people dictate how we play baseball," Young said. "Our style is to play for nine innings, 27 outs. Let's use them all."
They went out and played a near-flawless game. The Cubans, kings of international baseball for half a century, were the rattled outfit. Their manager, Servio Borges, pulled his starting pitcher in the second inning with his team trailing, 1-0. Ben Sheets pitched brilliantly for the U.S., getting ahead in the count, keeping the ball down and serving up 16 ground balls. The Cubans had these stricken looks on their faces, as if they realized they could actually lose.
"I've played a lot of baseball," Young said. "I know that look. When we were winning, you could see it in the Cubans' faces. They were getting frustrated. You could see them starting to panic a bit."
At one point, a couple of the U.S. players began heckling the Cubans from the bench. Young stood up in the dugout and told them to keep their mouths shut. "Let's take care of ourselves and let sleeping dogs lie," he said.
In the fifth, the U.S. had the bases loaded with two outs against Maels Rodriguez, who was hitting 100 mph on the radar gun. You had the sense that if Cuba got out of it, there could be a huge momentum swing. Young lined a two-run single through the box to make it 4-0. When he reached first, he thrust his arms in the air. The entire U.S. bench leaped to the top of the dugout, pointing at Young and shouting.
"That was the biggest hit of the whole Olympics," Lasorda said. The Cubans never threatened after that. Young made a terrific sliding catch in foul ground to end the eighth. Mike Neill made a similar catch in left to end the game.
The next thing you knew, Young was running around the outfield with an American flag, leading a bunch of castoffs and kids on a victory lap. No one had given them much of a chance coming in. When he was handed the original roster, Lasorda said, "Who the heck are these guys?" A lot of people know them now.
"This means a lot to me," Young said. "Baseball was started by us; it was played first by us. Now we won the gold. This was the best game I ever played in. If I never played another game, I would cherish this game for the rest of my life. We don't have any stars on this team. But we had guys who still had a love for the game, and that brought us closer together."
Young couldn't seem to let the moment go. It was almost midnight and he was the last American player in the stadium, talking to a small group of reporters. He had a shiny new gold medal. He also had a beautiful new baby boy he hadn't seen yet.
His wife was expected to deliver their fourth child on Oct. 7. But last Sunday night, after the Australia game, he got a call from his father-in-law, telling him to call the hospital in Arizona in an hour. Young called and found out she was already in labor.
"I called from my cell phone and she was ready to go," Young said. "Five minutes later, I heard the nurse saying, 'We see his hair!' "
Elijah Young weighed in at 8 pounds, 12 ounces. Today his father, the gold medalist and Olympic hero, will go home to see him."It's been a great week," Young said as he prepared to leave the empty stadium. "I hope I put myself back on the map. I probably won't sleep tonight. That's OK. I've got 15 hours to sleep on the plane. I know I won't be sleeping much once I get home."