Q&A: Marucci CEO/Olympic Gold Medalist Kurt Ainsworth
With the International Olympic Committee’s decision to bring baseball and softball back to the Olympics in 2020, Marucci CEO/Co-Founder Kurt Ainsworth, member of the 2000 gold medal-winning US Olympic baseball team, reflects on his experience in Sydney, what it meant for him to win gold, and how he feels about the sport returning to Tokyo in 2020.
The Rundown: Baseball is back in the Olympics. As a gold medal winner and Olympics participant, what does it mean for the game to be back on an international platform?
Kurt Ainsworth: More than anything, I’m glad it’s back as an Olympic sport. As the CEO of Marucci now, we’re trying to grow the game internationally, and this is the biggest event there is to helping that growth.
Baseball is a great game. It’s taught me life lessons, my kids are playing it now, I’m around it all the time, having it back in the Olympics is a special thing. It’s special for all of us older guys to be able to watch it again, especially with 2020 being the 20th anniversary of our gold medal, so I hope we have something to do with that.
The Rundown: 2000 was the first year the Olympics allowed professional players in the baseball tournament, however the MLB didn’t send any players from active rosters. How were you approached with the opportunity and what was the tryout process like?
KA: It started during the season with a questionnaire that was sent out throughout the Minor Leagues to see who was interested in participating. I’m not sure how many they started with, but they began drug testing everyone who was interested during the season.
We didn’t find out the selection happened until the final week of the season. Brian Sabean (General Manager of the San Francisco Giants) came to meet me in El Paso to tell me I had been selected to play on the Olympic team. He said, “You have two choices. You can go up to the Big Leagues in September, or you can go to the Olympics.” Honestly, at that time, I said I want to go to the Big Leagues. He said, “You can thank me later, but you’re going to the Olympics.”
We went over with 30 players, and only 25 made the roster. We went through a two-week tryout process, and then they selected the final roster. Getting over there was one thing, but actually making the team was another.
The Rundown: Once the roster was finalized, the team was made up of Minor League prospects and inactive Big League veterans. With such a gap there, how was the team able to come together?
KA: Tommy Lasorda was our manager, and he made us play with a chip on our shoulder. He said, “You all came over to Sydney, and no one knows who you are, but when you leave here, everyone’s going to know who you are. That was the mentality he had. He really wanted to shock the world.
Our biggest thing was to let the other teams know they weren’t pushing around college players anymore.
It was intense. Our team played with a lot of fire, and we really came together in a short period of time. We bonded over those first two weeks before the Olympics even started, so we got to know each other really well. We’d pull for each other, which was very different than pro ball where you don’t see guys pulling for each other as much, especially in the Minor Leagues because you’re trying to compete for jobs.
When Olympic play actually began, it was all about the USA. It was all about winning. No matter who was pitching or who was hitting, the rest of the team was their biggest fan. That’s why it was probably the most fun I’ve had playing baseball.
The Rundown: Cuba was the team to beat, right? They’d won 18 straight in the Olympics coming in, and with the U.S. team only being together for a few weeks, did it feel like an underdog situation for the United States?
KA: I think it was kind of like an underdog story for us. Cuba was loaded. They had a pitcher throwing 100 mph and all these veteran guys that could be in the Big Leagues, and they were not used to losing. We came in there and acted like we weren’t scared of them. Had we been a team full of rookies, we may have been intimidated, but we had some veteran guys as well, and they wouldn’t allow that, and that’s really what led to the attitude we had.
The Rundown: The script unfolded, and after a rain-delayed walk off semifinal win over South Korea, the United States advanced into the finals and beat Cuba to win the gold medal. From your perspective, what has that gold medal meant to you?
KA: It’s something that changes your life and sticks with you forever. I played in the College World Series with LSU; I played in the World Series with San Francisco, but when you’re playing on those teams LSU fans are the only ones cheering for you, or Giants fans are the only ones cheering for you.
When you play for the USA, your entire country is pulling for you. That’s what makes it special. When you get to have USA across your chest, and then a gold medal put around your neck, and then having the national anthem play, that’s about as special a feeling as you can get.
During that moment, all the emotions start running through your mind about how hard you’ve worked to get here, who helped you along the way, and how nothing can ever take this accomplishment away. We’ll always be bonded together with that team because of the gold medal.