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January 21, 2001

Prospectus Q&A: Mike Neill

Interview with an Olympic Hero

by Derek Zumsteg

Mike Neill was a key player on the United States baseball team in the 2000 Olympics, the team that defied most predictions by beating Cuba to win the gold medal. Neill led the competition in runs scored (11), walks (eight), and home runs (three), including a dramatic game-winning home run in the 10th inning to beat Japan in round-robin play. Those heroics came just a year after his game-winning home run against Mexico in the Pan American Games quarterfinal guaranteed the U.S. team a berth in the Sydney Olympics.

Neill was drafted by Oakland in 1991 and has minor-league career totals of .310/.403/.453. He spent last season with the Mariners' Triple-A affiliate in Tacoma, where he smoked the ball to the tune of .310/.423/.494 but was passed up for promotion in favor of a trade for no-hit, no-field Al Martin. Next time you hear that your local club is looking for a left-handed hitter with on-base skills, fax them Neill's stat line out of the green book.

Baseball Prospectus: How would you compare Triple-A baseball and Olympic baseball in terms of competition level?

Mike Neill: There has been a lot of press on how good the foreign major leagues are. I thought a lot of us felt the Olympics were a way to show how good baseball is in America, even if it's just our Triple-A players.

Position-player-wise, I didn't think [the international teams] were that great. The Netherlands' lineup, for example, was just strong or even better than Korea and Japan. Cuba's lineup to me was like a Triple-A team, no better. Of course, Ben Sheets can make anyone look stupid, he is just plain ol' nasty. I said from the very beginning, Cuba was not as good as everyone has said, but the other teams were not as weak either. It was a very even tournament, and a lot of fun to play in.

Cuba's pitchers were the absolute real deal. No one even talks about [Jose Ibar], who threw a 97 mph fastball and an 89 mph split, unreal stuff. Then the reliever [Maels Rodriguez] hits 100 mph on us. The only difference is Cuba's pitching; all in all, we face better teams every day in Triple-A.

BP: What did you find was the most striking difference in terms of game play between a normal game and international competition?

Neill: Each pitch is so important; it kind of reminds me of winter ball. International baseball is like college basketball but on a baseball field. In Triple-A you play so many games, each at bat is not life and death--even some games, for that matter. Not in international competition; everything is huge. Then playing single-elimination games is just unreal, the pressure is indescribable. That is why to me, Doug Mientkiewicz's home run was the biggest home run of the Olympics, it was do or die, we were struggling and he picked us all up.

Umpiring is also different, you never know what is going to happen. Sometimes you have a Spanish umpire, and us playing Korea, so three languages in one game. Crazy stuff. In Triple-A our umps are pretty good and we have good working relationships.

BP: John Patterson described playing for Team USA as the most intense pressure he'd ever experienced. Is it really that crazy?

Neill: Yes, it is! Single-elimination games are not good for your health. USA on your chest, knowing losing is not an option--it's just plain sick. That is why it has been incredible to be a part of both the Pan Am Games and the Olympics, something I will remember for life. The Olympic team was the best team in terms of heart I have ever played on, each night a different guy picked us up. It was awesome. Also, having a stud like Sheets in the gold-medal game helps.

BP: Manager Tommy Lasorda had you and Ernie Young, not normally terrors on the basepaths, stealing a lot more. Was this part of a larger strategy to take advantage of weak-armed opposition, or just Lasorda's style?

Neill: I just think we had some trouble scoring runs so Tommy was just trying to get things going. But you ask both Ernie and myself, we think we can run in the right spots.

BP: You led the Olympics in walks. Was it harder to work the count in the aggressive atmosphere of the Olympics?

Neill: Actually, with the at-bats so important, I tried to be more patient then usual. I felt it was important to get good pitches to hit and get on base any way possible. I wasn't swinging the bat as well as I usually do, so I just tried to get on base and let the other guys hit me in.

BP: You got to play with a great mix of the best talent in the major leagues, including some great young pitchers. Who particularly impressed you, and why?

Neill: Ben Sheets. His stuff, his make-up, his command--let's just say I wouldn't mind being his agent. Roy Oswalt has incredible stuff and is a fighter; he just needs a little more command and he'll be an absolute stud. Brent Abernathy is a gamer, Brad Wilkerson has a sweet swing with power, and Sean Burroughs is a young stud who just needs some time. I still haven't figured out how Todd Williams is not in the bigs getting out righties.

But the thing I loved about our team is that we were all "gamers," not the fastest, don't have the best power, but we all battled. Neat to be a part of.

BP: The Mariners sent more players to the Olympics, both with the U.S. team and international teams, than any other organization. Were they supportive of your desire to play? Did other players have a more difficult time with their teams?

Neill: I think the Ms were supportive of us wanting to play, but at the same time for us to be able to play was their way of saying we weren't good enough to play in the bigs for them.

BP: You've had some great moments playing in international competition, from getting the team its Olympic berth in the Pan Am Games to hitting a game-winning home-run against Japan. But would you trade your medal for a guaranteed year starting in the major leagues?

Neill: Obviously, my goal all along was and is to play in the bigs. Sometimes things don't go how you plan them, but being an Olympian and playing in the Pan Am Games has made the long hard road worthwhile. I got hurt early in my career when I was a prospect, and by the time I recovered I was off the map. It's hard sometimes cause I know I am a better player now, but I can't complain: I have a gold medal. Would I trade it in? I don't think life works that way; you can only control what you can control. Maybe, if I catch a break, I can get that time in the bigs in the next couple of years.

BP: Did Lasorda's rah-rah spirit inspire you guys to play, or did it seem sort of overdone?

Neill: I have to give Lasorda a lot of respect. The first day he talked to us, he said we were going to win the gold. Also, in all the interviews he gave, he said we were going to win. I felt if we got to the final game, we had a great shot, especially with Sheets on the mound. Lasorda always said we would win, but at the same time we had a lot of guys who believed in themselves. A lot of us didn't need any motivation, this is what we have always wanted, an opportunity to show everyone we could play. It was our World Series, it was our playoffs, it was what we always wanted--an opportunity.

BP: Was Lasorda a little mellowed from retirement, or did you get to see him go into one of his terrifying swearing jags?

Neill: Lasorda has not mellowed, and that was a good thing!

BP: What do you try to do to be successful as a hitter?

Neill: I always try to make the pitcher get me out. I try to be patient and swing at good pitches. I want to be a tough out, and always give a battle.

BP: Was coming up through the A's system good for you?

Neill: It was great coming up with the A's, just wish I would have gotten more of an opportunity. I think they run things the right way, and we had a lot great teams and fun guys. I enjoyed my time there. I also liked playing for Mike Quade, he really knows the game. As long as you play hard and the right way he just lets you play. Was it good for me? Maybe if I had come up in a weaker organization, I would have more big-league time, but you never know.

BP: How did your experience with the A's contrast with your year in the Mariners' organization?

Neill: I also like playing for the Ms. I feel like Pat Gillick has helped them tremendously. It's just too bad they had such a great team this year. The year before (1999) they called up at least half of their Triple-A team. I was one year off. But I had fun with the guys in Tacoma in 2000, we had a great group. We all liked to have fun both on and off the field.

BP: Did the Mariners give you the option of a September call-up (like Brian Lesher's five at-bats) instead of going to Sydney?

Neill: No, it was totally their call, but by September I was glad I was able to play in the Olympics.

BP: Was it hard to keep focused when the Mariners traded for Al Martin instead of giving you a chance? How have you kept going (and playing well) for so long while not getting a break?

Neill: Yes, it was very hard. You kept on reading how the Ms were looking for a left-handed-hitting outfielder and I was hitting around .320 with a high on-base percentage, but couldn't get that chance. I felt bad for Raul Ibanez, too. There he is on the bench in the bigs and, every day, it's "the Ms need a lefty." Crazy business.

I know when the trade hit, I lost focus and hope for a week or two. It's tough to play sometimes with no hope, but then I just set my focus on the Olympic team. I have kept playing because I would love to see what would happen with 100 at-bats in the bigs--would I continue to hit? I think so, but we might never know.

Mike Quade was helpful with me one year in Triple-A, basically he said, "You can't control all of the other stuff, if you are supposed to be a Triple-A player. Just make yourself the best Triple-A player you can be." I have always tried to do that, and it's not always easy, but I just want to play the game right and play hard.

BP: What prompted you to sign with Boston?

Neill: I wanted to play on the East Coast, get out of those graveyards of Vancouver and Tacoma, and try to put up good numbers. My agent felt like it was the organization that showed the most interest at the big-league side, not just in signing me as a Triple-A player. I know, barring injuries, I'll start in Pawtucket, but if they need someone hopefully they won't be scared to call me up. Also, they have solid Japan connections, so maybe if things don't work out they can ship me there.

BP: How long do you think you'd keep trying to make it to the major leagues if no opportunity comes?

Neill: The way I feel now, I am going to play as long as I can. The last couple of years have been fun, I am better now than I have ever been. I am single, no responsibilities, and make pretty good money, so why not? I see how much my friends work at real jobs, I don't want one of those!

Derek Zumsteg can be reached at dzumsteg@baseballprospectus.com.

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MORE BY DEREK ZUMSTEG
2001-02-26 - The Week in Quotes: February 18-24
2001-02-19 - The Week in Quotes: February 4-17
2001-02-05 - The Week in Quotes: January 15-February 3
2001-01-21 - Prospectus Q&A: Mike Neill
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