Unheralded reliever Dan Wheeler saved the U.S.'s Olympic hopes
The breeze blowing off Lake Manitoba on Sunday night was
actually the U.S. baseball team exhaling. In the semifinals of
the Pan Am Games in Winnipeg, the U.S. needed 10 innings and a
clutch relief performance to beat Mexico 2-1 and qualify for the
2000 Olympics. With the top two teams in Winnipeg assured of
spots in Sydney, Monday's final, a 5-1 loss to two-time
defending Olympic champion Cuba, was almost an afterthought.
"Can you imagine taking U.S.A. baseball out of the Olympics?"
asked Bob Watson, former Yankees general manager and vice
chairman of the team's selection committee after Sunday's game.
Might as well take the Cubans out of boxing and the French out
of fries. It could have happened, though, if not for righty Dan
Wheeler's four perfect innings on Sunday. In retiring Mexico's
final 12 hitters--five of whom he fanned--Wheeler threw 34 of 46
pitches for strikes. Before Mike Neill's RBI single in the top
of the 10th, Wheeler told pitching coach Marcel Lachemann, "I
feel awesome. I'll just go until we score."
Wheeler was an unlikely hero. In 1996 the Devil Rays drafted him
out of Central Arizona (junior) College with their 34th-round
pick and told him he would be a DFE, an abbreviation for draft,
follow and evaluate. Major league teams can hold the rights to a
DFE--or any other player, for that matter--without signing him
for up to a week before the following year's draft, as long as
he doesn't attend a four-year college. Few DFEs ever become
topflight major leaguers, but Wheeler was not discouraged when
he was told he was a long shot. After going 19-6 as a starter at
Central Arizona in 1996 and '97, he signed with Tampa Bay and
worked his way up to Triple A Durham, where he is 5-3 with a
Devil Rays general manager Chuck LaMar has come to like
Wheeler's attitude and pitching style so much that in a series
of conference calls in the spring he persuaded the other 18
members of the Pan Am team's steering and search committees to
include him on the U.S. roster. Wheeler, who had been a starter
since his junior college days, worked 5 1/3 scoreless relief
innings in a preliminary-round game against Cuba before allowing
a two-run homer to Isacc Martinez. Wheeler was pulled before a
five-run ninth lifted the U.S. to a 10-5 victory, but his
performance opened the eyes of many scouts. "Nobody thought he'd
do what he did against Cuba--17 of 19 sliders for strikes," says
Mike Hamilton of the Major League Baseball Scouting Service.
"He's better than people think." Wheeler's control is so good
that he's always around the plate. "When Dennis Eckersley
pitched, you knew you'd get sliders for strikes, too," Hamilton
says. "Doesn't mean you could hit them."
It's a stretch to suggest that Wheeler might turn into an
Eckersley, but last week in Winnipeg anything seemed possible.
Canada, which has qualified for the Olympics only once, defeated
Cuba and the U.S. in the preliminary round before losing to Cuba
3-2 in the semifinals. Cuba, which had won 152 straight
tournament games from 1987 to '97, ended up with two defeats.
Even as his prospects of becoming a major leaguer brightened,
Wheeler was talking as if he would like to pitch for the U.S.
team in Sydney no matter what. "I've dreamed about getting the
call to the majors," Wheeler said after Sunday's game. "But this
is the biggest rush I've had in my life." Wheeler stepped back
to let two cameramen get better shots of him. Then he shook his
head and laughed at the notion that a DFE had become a VIP.
Legally Blind Runner
SIGHT FOR SORE EYES
After her surprising victory in the 1,500 meters at the Pan Am
Games last week, Marla Runyan of the U.S. skipped into the
stands at Winnipeg's Manitoba Stadium, listened for the familiar
voice saluting her, and tried to follow it amidst the other
congratulatory shouts. When Runyan reached the source of that
voice, she waited for it to move or speak again. Was it a man? A
woman? Runyan couldn't tell. Only when Rahn Sheffield, her
former coach at San Diego State, shouted a delirious, "Marla!"
did the legally blind Runyan know it was safe to start hugging.
Runyan was born with macular degeneration of the retina, a
condition that left her with only limited ability to see details
such as faces and numbers. "What's in front of me disappears
into a hole," she says. When Runyan races, she anticipates who
her stiffest competitors will be--in Winnipeg she figured they
would be Cindy O'Krane and Leah Pells of Canada--and memorizes
their uniform colors and other distinguishing features, such as
hairstyles. "What made this one easier," Runyan said of the Pan
Am race, "was that Cindy had a ponytail and Leah didn't."
Runyan stayed within striking distance of Pells, who led for
most of the last 600 meters. In the final strides, however,
Runyan threw her torso forward and edged Pells at the wire. Both
runners were timed in 4:16.86.
Runyan, 30, began her career as a multi-eventer but became a
middle-distance specialist after setting a U.S. heptathlon
record of 2:04.70 in the 800 meters at the 1996 Olympic trials.
She moved to Eugene, Ore., where she works with deaf and blind
children, helping them find ways to communicate. After two
injury-plagued years, she placed fourth in the 1,500 at the '99
nationals in June. Since two of the three runners who finished
ahead of her have yet to run under the 4:08 qualifying standard
for the world championships--Runyan ran 4:06.42 at a meet in
Brunswick, Maine, four weeks ago--she will most likely make her
European debut at the worlds later this month in Seville, Spain.
"At times I wish I could watch meets as a spectator," she says.
"I'd like to see what I'm missing." Indeed, her 1,500 at the Pan
Ams was quite a sight.
Pan Am Dispatches
DON'T MESS WITH ANTHEMS
Athletes were miffed at Pan Am organizers, who saved time during
the Games with a foolish edict called "anthem control." Before
team events and during award presentations, national anthems
were limited to 45 seconds, except for that of the host
nation.... Teri and Jason Tunks, who are married, won bronze
medals in track and field for different countries. Teri
represented the U.S. in the shot put; Jason threw the discus for
Canada. The two met three years ago when Teri accidentally hit
Jason with a throw.... Though security had been unobtrusive in
Winnipeg, volunteers at several venues began randomly searching
bags for contraband as the Games headed into its final week.
Were they looking for drugs? Guns? Political leaflets? No,
Pepsi. Bringing in Coke, the official soft drink of the Pan Ams,
was perfectly acceptable.
COLOR PHOTO: TODD KOROL Travis Dawkins and the U.S. were nearly toppled by Mexico.
COLOR PHOTO: KEVORK DJANSEZIAN/AP Runyan (554) nipped Pells to win the 1,500.
These are the events at the Pan Am Games that determine, or help
determine, qualifiers for the 2000 Olympics.
Badminton Players earn points as part of season-long
process to select qualifiers.
Baseball Top two teams go to Sydney (Cuba and the U.S.)
Equestrian Show Top three teams, excluding Brazil, which has
Jumping already qualified, go to Sydney (U.S. competes
Equestrian Top two teams go to Sydney (Brazil and the U.S.)
Field Hockey Winner qualifies; silver medalist advances to
tournament next March for another chance to
qualify (U.S. men were eliminated; women
still have chance to qualify)
Rhythmic Top 19 of 24 individual Olympic slots will be
Gymnastics determined at world championships next month;
the last five berths will be awarded after that
based on performances at regional competitions
such as Pan Ams
Shooting Competitors earn quota spots for their countries
based on scores at regional events such as Pan Ams
Softball Top team, excluding U.S., which qualified by
winning '98 world championship, goes to Sydney
Team Handball Gold medalists advance (U.S. men and women
play this weekend)
Triathlon Number of berths, up to three per country,
determined by results at Pan Ams (U.S. qualified
three men and three women)
Water Polo Men's gold medalist goes to Sydney (U.S.);
remaining teams can earn berth at either of two