Remembering… Mike Neill
Every September 27th, Mike Neill dips into a book bag and pulls out a tangible piece of the greatest thrill of his baseball career – an Olympic gold medal.
He’ll place it around his neck for a few moments, and recall all that went into winning gold with the 2000 USA Baseball Olympic Team in Sydney, Australia. Then he takes to texts and phone calls to his former champion teammates.
“I do it every year,” says Neill, now Vice President-Wealth Management and a Financial Advisor/Financial Planning Specialist for Morgan Stanley in Philadelphia, just a long home run from the campus of Villanova, where he starred in college, and – after retiring from pro ball in 2002 – returned to earn his Finance degree. “Being part of that [USA] team... was incredible.” What was incredible was Neill’s sense of timing for that team. His home run in the bottom of the 13th inning beat Japan in the opening round of the Olympics, capping the longest game in Olympic history.
Then there was the home run against arch-rival Cuba in the championship game... but more on that later. For even the United States to get to the Olympics, it was a pinch-single by Neill in the 10th inning that drove in the winning run a year before to lift the U.S. to a 2-1 win over Mexico in the semifinals of the 1999 Pan Am Games. That win qualified the U.S. for the 2000 Olympics.
The inning before that hit, Neill – chilling on the bench – told coach Buddy Bell that “I’m going to be one the bench waiting if you need a good, solid at-bat,” Neill recalls. Bell listened, and told Neill that “I need that now.” “I don’t think Buddy really understood I was just talking [crap],” Neill says with a laugh.
So when the Olympics rolled around – and Neill was chosen as one of a handful of players from that ’99 Pan Am Team to make the Olympic roster – he wasn’t fazed by much. He was a 30-year-old minor league veteran whose brief major league career in 1998 consisted of six games with the Oakland A’s in which he batted .267 over 15 at-bats.
The Olympics offered new life.
Sometimes people find themselves in the right place at the right time. And they take advantage of those situations, which is what Neill did with the 2000 U.S. Olympic Team. Never mind that he felt his swing was getting “a little long” when the Games began, Neill’s 13th-inning home run made the world take notice. Maybe this U.S. team wouldn’t be a pushover. Did he know it was gone when it left the bat? “I did,” Neill says. “Very rarely does that ever happen, but that was one of the few times that I knew it was gone.”
A contentious matchup with Cuba, in which the U.S felt the Cubans had plunked Ernie Young on purpose and believed the Cubans were trying to intimidate the Americas, saw the U.S. lose 6-1. But it would be the only loss they would suffer in the Olympics. But coach Tommy Lasorda kept the team focused, and reminded them of not embarrassing the uniform they were wearing. They reached the semifinals against South Korea, and waited out a slow-moving storm that delayed the game several hours. Once play resumed after midnight – and with hardly anyone left in the stands – Doug Mientkiewicz homered to send the U.S. into the gold medal game against Cuba.
“The semifinal was really overwhelming,” Neill says. “For Doug to hit the home run and get us to the gold medal game was big. It really sort of relaxed us.”
In the championship game, it was Neill who set the tone for the Americans. After the first two batters struck out, Neill drilled a fastball to the opposite field that cleared the fence. As he rounded the bases, he dotted the trot with a couple of fist pumps and plenty to say to the Cubans as he passed them. What did he say? “I was just letting them know we were there to play,” Neill says.
Neill also caught the final out of the game, sliding near the left-field line to come up with the highlight-reel out. That brought a huge celebration as the U.S. players mobbed pitcher Ben Sheets, who shutout the Cubans on just three hits to clinch the only gold medal in U.S. Olympic baseball history.
On the podium, Neill couldn’t help but think of the significance of the team standing alongside him. And when the first notes of the National Anthem were heard, it was all he could do to keep it together. “An indescribable feeling,” he says. “To be part of something like that . . . I don’t think a day goes by that I don’t think about it.”