Here is the third story in my 10-part series in the Los Angeles Times. It’s about my experience in the 2000 Olympics.
I wanted to be the manager of Team USA, and I’ll tell you why. Everybody said you can’t beat the Cubans. Cuba always fielded teams with the best baseball players from that country. We always use players from the low minor leagues because the Olympics are played in the middle of baseball season so the big leaguers can’t participate.
So I wanted to be the manager because I believed that the United States could beat Cuba.
After I was named Manager, I met the team for the first time in San Diego. I had never seen the players. I did not know them. The only guy I was familiar with was Pat Borders who played for Toronto, but the other 24 guys were all from the low minor leagues. When Team USA was formed, Major League general managers were expending their rosters to 40 players and calling up their best minor leaguers for the playoff push, so many GM’s would not give us their best players.
I told my wife that 25 years later there would be a quiz; who’s the only man to help his country win a medal and win a World Series? That’s going to be me.
“You don’t even know who the players are,” she said.
I don’t have to know who they are,” I answered. “Just that they’re alive. That’s all I care about!”
The day before we were to leave for Australia I sat my team down for a talk.
I don’t know who you are. I don’t know where you come from. I don’t know if you’re married or single. I don’t know if you’re good, mediocre, or bad. But I’m going to tell you something right now; when this thing is all over the whole world is going to know who you are. You know why? Because you are going to bring that Gold Medal to the United States where it belongs in baseball!
You do not represent your family. You do not represent the school you went to, or your home town, or the organization that signed you. You now represent the United States of America, and you’re not going to do a damn thing to embarrass yourself, or our country. All you are going to do is win. You know why you’re going to win? Because baseball is America’s game. It doesn’t belong to the Cuban’s, or the Italian’s, or the Japanese, or the Korean’s. It’s our game, and we’re not going to let those donkeys beat us!
And by-golly those youngsters played their hearts out.
We beat the Cubans 4-0 to win the Gold Medal. It was the first time that Team USA has won the Gold, and we haven’t won it since.
They say that coaches don’t get medals in the Olympics, which is true. A lot of people felt sorry for me because I didn’t get a medal, but I tell them that I got my medal when I saw them put the Gold around my player’s necks. I got my medal when I saw them raise the American flag. I got my medal when they played our National Anthem.
I cried. I cried because I was so happy because I did something for my country.
That was my biggest thrill. Winning that gold was bigger than my 50+ years with the Dodgers. It was bigger than Major League Baseball. It was bigger than winning two World Series. People thought I was crazy for saying that but I told them that when the Dodgers win, the Dodger fans are happy but the Giants fans and the Padres fans aren’t. But when you win a Gold Medal, all of America is happy.
This is where the Gold Medal in baseball belongs. Our theme was: we did not come 5,000 miles to lose.
And how sweet it was; the fruits of victory.
Here is the second story I wrote about my life in baseball for the Los Angeles Times. It ran in yesterday’s Sunday Times.
As the 1976 season came to end, the Dodgers were nine games out of first place and I was
finishing my fourth year as Third Base Coach for Walter Alston. When Alston, who was the skipper for 23 years and future Hall of Famer, stepped down, everyone was shocked, including myself.
The next game was Alston’s last. Peter O’Malley, who was then President, told me that he was going to call me the next morning at nine o’clock, and that nobody was to be on the phone.
All night I wondered. Of course I wanted the job, but no one ever said to me that I was going to be the next manager of the Dodgers. I believed that when the time came that Alston would step down that my loyalty, my contribution and my hard work would warrant me the job.
I knew I was prepared for the job. I knew I could win. I managed for eight years in the minor leagues, and in six winter ball seasons in the Dominican Republic. The majority of the players on that team had played for me in the minor leagues, and together we won in the Rookie League, we won in triple-A and we won in the Dominican, so I knew we could win in Los Angeles.
The phone finally rang at 9 o’clock the next morning and Peter told me he wanted to see me in his office at 10 o’clock.
On my way in I was saying to myself, “Don’t speed, don’t get stopped by the police, don’t get into an accident.”
I stayed right within the 65 mph speed limit. While I tried to concentrate on following the rules of the road, I couldn’t help but wonder about the possibilities.
A year ago, I was preparing to go to the Dominican to manage. John McHale, the General Manager of the Montreal Expos, called my house looking for me. I had played in Montreal for a number of years and loved the city and its people. My wife called me at Dodger Stadium to let me know that Mr. McHale was looking for me.
When he called, Peter told me to take the call in his office because he had given the Expos permission to talk to me.
I told Peter that I wasn’t interested, but he convinced me to talk to them as it could never hurt me.
I knew they were going to offer me the manager job. I was already a coach, and I knew they wouldn’t offer me another job as a coach.
When McHale told me that he wanted to meet with me, I thought he was going to pick some hotel in Downtown Los Angeles, but he surprised me and told me he wanted to meet with me the next morning in Denver, Colorado.
He told me there was a plane that would get me in at 10 a.m., we’d meet at the airport and I’d get in a plane and go back.
I met with him and flew home. A couple weeks later McHale called me and told me I was the new manager of the Montreal Expos. He was offering me a three-year contract for $50,000 for the first year, $75,000 for the second year, and $125,000 for the third. He told me there would be a first-class ticket waiting for me, and as soon as the World Series was over they were going to fly me into Montreal for the big announcement and that if I wanted to go back to the Dominican that would be fine.
I said, “John, if I ever left the Dodgers it would be for a guy like you. You are a classy gentleman and one of the best guys in baseball, but I can’t take the job.”
There was dead silence.
“You know, Charles [Broffman] told me you wouldn’t take the job. He said ‘that boy’s got too much blue in him.’”
I walked into Peter’s office and he asked me to sit down. He said, “You are now the manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers.”
When he told me I was the manager of the Dodgers, tears came out of my eyes. My dreams, my hopes and my prayers were all answered. What I had hoped for, what I wanted to see, what I believed in became a reality.
I thought about my father, an Italian immigrant. He had five sons and a wife, and sat at the head of the table. One night he looked at us and said, “I’m the luckiest guy in the world.”
I jumped up out of my seat and said, “Pop, how can you say that? You work in a stone quarry, five, six days a week. You get your check on Friday and it doesn’t even belong to you. It belongs to someone you owe. How can you tell us you’re the luckiest man in the world?”
“Sit down and shut up,” he said in broken English.
“When I came to this country I had nothing. Now I have a beautiful wife, and five sons. See this house, it’s mine. See that car out there? It’s mine.”
To him, that was success.
During my eight seasons in the minor leagues, there were many times that I questioned myself. I wanted to be at Dodger Stadium. I wanted to manage the Dodgers, but I knew that I first had to put in the work.
Later I told myself that if he was saying he was the luckiest man in the world, what should I be saying? I’m playing baseball for a living!
Never once did I ever complain again.
Peter had the press conference all set up in front of the Stadium Club. Before we made our way down to the onslaught of media, I walked over to the office of my mentor, Al Campanis.
Al had me primed to become the manager for many years. He made me become a scout to learn about tools. He made me become a minor league manager to learn about teaching young players to become better and to believe in themselves. He made me become a coach on Alston’s staff to learn about the other players in the National League.
I walked into his office and gave him a hug. He looked me in the eyes and said to me, “Now you are going to have to prove how good you are.” Those were his exact words.
Outside of my family, it was the greatest thing that ever happened to me. It was everything I wanted. It was everything I worked hard for. All those hours I spent in the minor leagues, hoping and praying that one day I would get the job.
Over the 20 years I managed there were good times and bad times. But the good times and great times outweighed the tough times. I look at what I’ve had, I feel like I’m the luckiest guy in the whole wide world. To be able to do what I loved more than anything, and make it into baseball’s Hall of Fame, I feel like I’ve lived a dream.