Dodgers' rich international history on display in Sydney
From Lasorda's gold medal to Nomo's signing, LA has always been at global forefront
SYDNEY -- Two snapshots from the United States' last baseball gold medal in the Olympics are still vivid almost 14 years later: Doug Mientkiewicz's walk-off home run in the semifinals to beat Korea and Ben Sheets' three-hit shutout over favored Cuba to win the gold.
But to fans of the Los Angeles Dodgers, there's one more, and it comes to mind now that the Dodgers are back in Sydney, the site of the 2000 Summer Games.
It was 72-year-old Tommy Lasorda, four years removed from a sterling career at the helm of his beloved Dodgers, bleeding not just blue but also red and white, as the skipper of the victorious American squad.
"Winning a World Series was great, but when you win the World Series, the Dodger fans are happy, but the Cincinnati fans aren't happy and the Giants fans aren't happy," Lasorda said. "But you win that gold medal, and all of America's happy. That's how big it was for me."
And it was just another example of the rich history that the Dodgers have in international baseball, which is on display again as they prepare for Opening Series 2014 in historic Sydney Cricket Ground.
It started when the Brooklyn Dodgers, owned by Walter O'Malley, took part in a tour of Japan following the 1956 season, and it continued after the team moved to Los Angeles, with visits throughout the 1960s. Lasorda, then a scout, conducted a clinic in Tokyo in 1965, and the following year the Dodgers were given a two-ton, 10-foot-tall stone lantern as a gift of friendship from Japanese Hall of Famer Sotaro Suzuki.
In 1980, the Dodgers began a relationship with the China Baseball Association to help the development of baseball in China, and six years later Dodgers owner Peter O'Malley, Walter's son, helped build a practice field in Beijing and paid for the construction of a stadium in Tianjin. The Dodgers' long-standing ties to China continued in 2008 with a Spring Training series against the Padres in Beijing.
The team also branched out to Chinese Taipei beginning in 1993 and continuing into 2010, when the Dodgers visited Taiwan for exhibitions against a team from the Chinese Professional Baseball League.
The bond with Japan continued with more clinics and occasional exhibition games until Feb. 8, 1995, when the Dodgers signed pitcher Hideo Nomo, who would become the second Japanese player to make it to the Major Leagues.
Nomo debuted on May 2 of that year in San Francisco, where he promptly pitched five innings of one-hit, shutout ball, striking out seven. He would soon dominate the National League, kicking off "Nomomania" in Los Angeles that rivaled the "Fernandomania" of 1981, when rookie Fernando Valenzuela was thrilling fans in Chavez Ravine. Nomo threw a two-hitter, a one-hitter, routinely struck out more than 10 batters in a game, pitched in the All-Star Game, and won the NL Rookie of the Year Award after posting a 13-6 record, 2.54 ERA and 236 strikeouts.
Nomo would go on to pitch 12 seasons in the Majors, throw two no-hitters, win 123 games and strike out 1,918 batters. But he did a lot more than that.
"Nomo paved the way for all the great Japanese players we're seeing in the game today," then-Dodgers general manager Fred Claire said. "And I don't think he gets enough credit for it. He really put himself on the line. He wanted to test himself against the best players in the world, because he wanted to be the best. And that's really what it's all about."
Nomo wasn't the only Dodgers' pioneer. Chan Ho Park became the first Korean to play in the Major Leagues in 1994, and Craig Shipley was the first Australian to make it to the bigs in the modern era.
Shipley was 16 when Dodgers team president Peter O'Malley sent Los Angeles coaches Red Adams and Monty Basgall to Australia as guest instructors of the Australian Baseball Federation.
Shipley was working in a bank at the time, having dropped out of high school after 10th grade, which was his legal right at the time. Once American universities came calling after the infielder, though, Shipley realized he'd better finish high school. He did so by playing rugby and eventually ended up on the University of Alabama baseball team.
He was signed by the Dodgers as an amateur free agent in 1984, made Minor League stops in Vero Beach, Fla., and Albuquerque, and debuted in the Major Leagues on June 22, 1986, going 1-for-4 with a single and an RBI against Padres pitcher Mark Thurmond at Dodger Stadium.
"Baseball's played all over the world," said Shipley, who is on hand at the Cricket Ground in his current role as special assistant to the general manager of the Diamondbacks. "If you have the resources and the manpower, you should scout the countries that have played baseball for a long time. Australia is one of those countries."
And now the always-global-minded Dodgers are here, with Yasiel Puig from Cuba, Kenley Jansen from Curacao, Hyun-Jin Ryu from Korea, Hanley Ramirez and Juan Uribe from the Dominican Republic and Clayton Kershaw from Dallas among the biggest names on their roster.
"The O'Malleys wanted the Dodgers to be well-liked all over the world, and Peter inherited that same attitude and made sure that everything we did was representing the Dodgers in a high-class way," Lasorda said.
"That's why there are so many Dodger fans all over the world."