International spotlight shines on Mike Neill

By Ronald MacArthur

In the Neill household in Greensboro, N.C., there is a mantle with a large teddy bear on top of it. Around that teddy bear's neck is an Olympic gold medal. The story behind that medal is as incredible and improbable as any story in sports today.

The medal belongs to Mike Neill, who grew up playing sports in Seaford. For the past 10 years, Neill has been playing his favorite sport, baseball, in the minor leagues. Who would have guessed that Mike Neill would be standing on the top step of the Olympics podium receiving a gold medal in the Olympics? It's not that Neill was just part of the team, his play helped propel the team into the international spotlight with the finale being a 4-0 upset of Cuba in the gold medal game. Earlier in the tournament he hit a game-winning, 13th inning home run to beat Japan in the Olympic's longest game ever, and then he homered in the first inning to put Team USA on the track to beating Cuba.

"To me the hit was just the result of trying to play good baseball but it turned out to be important for the team. The first two batters had struck out and looked real bad in the process. It showed the guys on the bench that we could win the game," he said. It was Neill who made a sliding catch in left field to end the game. "I still have the ball from the last out," he said. "I never had an idea what kind of impact this was having," he added. "It's wild - overwhelming really."

Neill also played a big part in getting Team USA to Australia in the first place. In the Pan American Games in 1999, it was his two-out hit in the top of the 10th that drove in the run that beat Mexico and placed Team USA in the Olympics. In his seven at bats in the Pan American games, he hit a double and drove in two runs.

'I was walking on eggshells'
His journey to Australia and the Olympics began at the start of spring training in 2000. "My goal was to play in the big leagues and if that didn't work out I wanted to play on the Olympic team," he said. "As the year went on I started to see that it was not going to happen. I knew I had a great shot because I played on the Pan American team the year before. "There was a rumor that I was going to get a September call-up, but at that late date I would have rather played in the Olympics because very few people will ever have this chance."

Of the more than 100 minor leaguers and ex-big leaguers who expressed interest in the team, the list was cropped down to 28 players. The 28 went to Australia in early September to play an exhibition schedule. "We went through two or three sets of drug tests here and then more in Australia," he said. "And we knew that four of us would be sent home because the team had to be cut down to 24 players."

Neill said that he began to worry as the exhibition season played out. "I was not playing much in the exhibition games and I was getting very worried. I was walking on eggshells. I finally started the last exhibition game and was 2-4 with 2 RBI. I hit third and played in every one of the Olympic games." The bad news was that his roommate didn't make the cut and had to come back to the United States. It's a good thing that he cracked into coach Tommy Lasorda's starting line-up.

'I had goosebumps for one hour'
The Olympic experience is something that Neill will cherish forever, and during the exhibition season he was able to see some of Australia. There are three experiences that were special to him.

1. The opening ceremonies.
"To be standing there with the greatest athletes representing the greatest country in the world was unbelievable. I had goose bumps for one hour straight."

2. Seeing the Games.
"During our off day I saw the softball team beat China and the Dream Team beat France. I was in seats under the basket," he said. "And then that night in the Olympic Stadium I saw Cathy Freeman and Michael Johnson win the 400."

3. Team USA.
"In all my years in baseball I have never been on a team with so much camaraderie he said. "They played right, played hard, and picked one another up. In the gold medal game I struck out with the bases loaded, but the next batter hit a two-RBI single." Another highlight was the all-important medal ceremony. "I never thought that I would be there. I was thinking that this is really party time, really awesome. I felt like a little kid out there," he said.

'It's a crazy business'
Except for a brief time that he was bothered by shoulder injuries, Neill has had a stellar baseball career with a career batting average over .300. For the nine years he played in the Oakland A's farm system, he consistently was among the league leaders in hits, runs, average, and doubles. He was drafted by the A's in the second round of the 1991 draft. In 1997 with the AA Huntsville team he led the entire minor leagues with 132 runs and led the Southern League in batting in 1997 (.340) and in 1991 (.350). His dream of playing in the big leagues came true for a short time in July 1998 when he was called up to the A's. He played in six games and collected four hits before he re-injured his shoulder.

"It's a crazy business. Sometimes it really just comes down to getting a break or being in the right place at the right time. It seems like with my career that I've always missed my shot by one year. I signed with Seattle this year thinking I had the best chance with them, and then Oakland ends up calling up seven players," he said.

What's in the future for Mike? Obviously, he wants to enjoy and reflect on the Olympic experience. He is throwing out the first pitch in Seattle's first playoff game and he has been invited to be a guest of honor at the University of Delaware- Villanova football game. There will be other engagements as well. He becomes a free agent again on Oct. 23 and he is hoping that his performance in the Olympics may help him reach his goal of playing full-time in the big leagues. But if that doesn't work out, he has the option of playing in either Korea or Japan.

If playing in the minor leagues has taught him anything, it is that it's wise to always have another plan in the works. "I'm still single and playing in Triple-A making good money for six months work and I really enjoy it," he said. "Why stop now? We are playing ball at the second best level in the world."

He plans to finish his college degree in finance (he needs five more classes) when his baseball playing days are over. Chances are that Mike will be coming back to Seaford with his mother and father, Pam and Bob (who still works for Du Pont) and sister Lisa, who lives in Baltimore.

A committee is working on an event to celebrate his achievement. And if his schedule works out, he will be back to visit his friend Mike Covey on Seaford High School homecoming weekend, Oct. 13. He also wants to see Covey race his stock car on Saturday night.

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