To actually stand up there on the podium after we did it, it was kind of surreal a little bit just because you dream about it, you think about it, you go through your mind a thousand times the night before if it’s going to happen and it actually happened.
“Run as fast as you can to get to the dogpile.”
That was Brad Wilkerson’s first thought after Team USA won an Olympic gold medal in 2000.
The dogpile is an iconic part of baseball championship celebrations but on the international stage it gets even better: standing on top of the podium with a gold medal around your neck and USA across your chest while the national anthem plays.
It will give you chills just thinking about it. And Wilkerson lived it.
“To actually stand up there on the podium after we did it, it was kind of surreal a little bit just because you dream about it, you think about it, you go through your mind a thousand times the night before if it’s going to happen and it actually happened,” Wilkerson said. “It was just something I’ll never forget the rest of my life.”
It was the second time Wilkerson got to enjoy that particular experience after winning a gold medal in the 1995 Junior World Championships with the USA Baseball 18U National Team. The MVP of that team, he hit .360 with three doubles, three home runs and eight RBI. But the Olympics was an entirely new level.
Often described as one of the biggest upsets in Olympic history, Team USA’s run to the 2000 gold was not exactly a sure thing. In fact, the U.S. was the underdog – decidedly – heading into the tournament, while two-time defending champion Cuba was the overwhelming favorite.
And none of that was lost on the U.S. team. Wilkerson knew his team had something to prove.
“(Cuba wasn’t) necessarily better than us but they were definitely more experienced than us and they were older than us,” Wilkerson recalled. “Things had to go right for us to win that tournament.”
But go right they did, starting with the construction of the team. Using professional athletes for the first time in Olympic history, the team brought together a combination of young talent and veteran leadership, and clicked almost immediately.
“It was a great bunch of guys. I think they did an excellent job of putting the team together,” Wilkerson said. “And we came together so quickly as a team that we knew once we gained some confidence through the first games, we knew we could beat anybody.”
The squad rolled to a 5-0 start while outscoring opponents 29-7 in the tournament’s opening round to bring up its first test against the highly-touted Cuban team.
In a tension-filled matchup, Cuba came out on top 6-1, but that score doesn’t tell the whole story. Not only did the defeat not slow Team USA down one bit, but Wilkerson believes it was a turning point for the players that only served to fuel their fire.
“Our biggest moment was when they hit Ernie Young and tried to be the intimidators and we stood up and we weren’t going to take it,” Wilkerson remembers. “That was our turning point of the whole tournament. Even though they beat us that game, we knew – and I think they knew – that we weren’t intimidated.
“The only thing I remember in the clubhouse (after the game) was everyone talking about ‘we can’t wait to get them again.’ That was the feeling I got from everybody on the team. It wasn’t down because we lost or anything like that, it was ‘I can’t wait to get them again.’”
So, they made sure they did. The U.S. finished the first round with a 12-1 thrashing of Australia before defeating South Korea 3-2 in the semifinals to bring on the much-anticipated rematch with Cuba in the gold medal game.
“I just remember that before the game, we felt so relaxed it was almost a can’t lose attitude in the clubhouse,” Wilkerson said. “I felt like we were loose, I felt like we were ready to go but we were serious.”
And behind a three-hit, shutout performance from Ben Sheets on the mound, Team USA couldn’t lose. It took down the two-time defending champions in the game that mattered most and earned its spot atop the Olympic podium.
Wilkerson will never forget those moments – the final out, the dogpile, the gold medal being placed around his neck, the national anthem ringing out – but his time on Team USA gave him so much more than just fond memories.
The outfielder’s performance and experience at the Olympics (he hit .216 with a double, a triple, a home run and seven runs scored) drove him into a successful eight-year Major League career.
“It was a great confidence booster and a great experience to play on that stage,” Wilkerson said. “And it propelled me confidence-wise to take that next step in my baseball career which was to be a Major League baseball player.
“Everybody that gets (to the Major Leagues) has the talent but how do you mentally prepare each and every day? That’s the biggest thing I learned from being on that team at the Olympics and around all those veteran guys was how we prepare and how we were loose but once we got to the field, we were ready to go. If you can incorporate that into your everyday life and your baseball career, then you’re going to be good.”
That mentality served Wilkerson well as he went on to rack up 788 career hits en route to a .247 career average while blasting 122 home runs and collecting 399 RBI in his eight MLB seasons.
He will also forever be in the history books as part of the Montreal Expos move to Washington D.C. The last player ever to wear an Expos jersey, he followed that by being the first to collect a base hit and a grand slam, as well as the first to hit for the cycle in a Washington Nationals uniform.
Fast forward and Wilkerson is still on the diamond, enjoying the game he loves but in a different way: taking all of those experiences, that wealth of baseball knowledge, and giving it back. And he loves that even more.
“Now looking back over the past few years and getting into coaching, the thing that I love most about what I did in my career is now I get to spend time with kids and help them get better,” Wilkerson said. “You do something and that’s great but then can you give it back? Can you give something to your community or kids to help them be better than you?”
Currently the head coach at The King’s Academy in West Palm Beach, Florida, Wilkerson started as the head coach of the middle school team in 2014. He led that squad to a league championship in his first season before moving up to coach the varsity team.
“Every player will look back and say I wish I would’ve known then what I know now and that’s what I enjoy about what I’m doing now because I know a lot more than when I was 25, 30 years old and I can pass that knowledge on to the next generation.”
Knowledge acquired through defeats and victories, on home soil and foreign, in the big leagues and with Team USA. Knowledge like trust who you are, put in the extra work and always be ready to play but don’t take the game too seriously.
And make sure you get to the dogpile as fast as you can.