Bringing home the bronze | September 12, 2008 | Danville Express | |

Danville Express

Cover Story - September 12, 2008

Bringing home the bronze

Danville ballplayer sees Olympic dream come true

by Geoff Gillette

The chances of a young man playing in Little League in Danville suiting up and playing for a major league team like the San Francisco Giants are roughly 1 in 144,000. At the same time, the odds of growing up and getting to play baseball in the 2008 Olympics are even higher.

Vegas oddsmakers must love a guy like Nate Schierholtz.

The 24-year-old San Ramon High School graduate beat both of those odds, playing right field for the Giants and suiting up as part of the U.S. baseball team that beat out Japan for the bronze medal in Beijing.

Schierholtz got the call to be on the USA team while playing for the Giant's Triple-A franchise, the Fresno Grizzlies. After spending some time with the Giants last year he was dropped down to the Triple-A team where he was having a solid season with a batting average of .315 and 65 RBI.

"It was amazing to be picked for the Olympics team," he said. "It was just an incredible feeling."

Needless to say he packed up and went. In late July, Schierholtz met for the first time with the rest of the team and manager Davey Johnson. He said Johnson, who has managed the New York Mets, Cincinnati Reds, Baltimore Orioles and Los Angeles Dodgers, was a great coach to play for on the USA Olympic team.

"He's a relaxed manager to play for," said Schierholtz. "He never put any extra pressure on us. He just said 'play your game' out there. It was kind of different."

Being on a team thrown together presented its own challenges.

"We had never played together before," Schierholtz explained. "We knew of each other through Triple-A but this was the first time we were on the field together."

The team met in San Jose and began training. There were a total of six practice games, some of them scrimmages against Team Canada.

"Not a lot of time to get to know each other - and then we headed to China," Schierholtz stated.

In China, the team stayed in the Olympic Village and used training facilities there. They were also allowed to take a bus to Beijing University to train. Schierholtz said training at Beijing University was good but there were other reasons to go there as well.

"They brought chefs in so the food was really good," he said. "We would work out, have a great meal and a massage."

It was at Beijing University that the young ballplayer had one of his most memorable experiences of his visit to China.

"I took a massage and woke up and Kobe Bryant was at the next table," he recalled with a laugh.

Despite his own rising star and status as a professional athlete, Schierholtz expressed a true fan's excitement at meeting Bryant, Lebron James and other athletes who he himself admired growing up.

He saw Bryant and the other USA Basketball players during the opening ceremony where they were all greeted by and met with President Bush.

"That was one of the highlights of the whole Olympics for me," Schierholtz said. "All of the U.S. athletes were gathered up in the fencing hall. President Bush came and spoke to us and took pictures with each team. We got to talk to him for a few minutes."

Bush, a baseball fan, also came out to see the team on the practice field. When asked, Schierholtz said the president didn't take the mound to throw in any practice pitches.

"He was pretty heavily surrounded by security," he explained, adding, "It was pretty special that he came out and watched."

Opening Ceremonies for the athletes was a lot of hurry up and wait. From the fencing center the athletes were walked to the gymnastics center.

"We were all dressed up and filed out by country. Then we walked about a quarter mile to the ceremonies."

Being at ground level meant the athletes did not get to see all of the elaborate effects and routines the Chinese hosts put on but what they could see and feel was awe inspiring.

"There were thousands and thousands of people," Schierholtz remembered. "There was a hundred thousand fans cheering. There was so much energy, every culture and country was represented. It was a neat moment. With all the problems in the world, for that couple of weeks it seemed like there was no tension anymore."

There may not have been political tension but on the field rivalries formed and games were played with strength, determination and grit. The U.S. team performed well through the preliminaries and Schierholtz got play time in centerfield.

"I haven't played too much in center," he said, "but that's where I played for the U.S."

Schierholtz found himself the center of international attention after a controversial game against Team China that ended with the manager and relief pitcher for China ejected from the field.

Early in the game, teammate Matt Laporta collided with Chinese catcher Wang Wei during a play at the plate. Wei's leg was injured and he had to be replaced. This seemed to affect play as more U.S. batters were getting hit by fastballs from the Chinese pitcher.

At the plate, Schierholtz himself was struck in the lower back and took his base. Two batters later, a hit brought him charging around third base where replacement catcher Yang Yang blocked the plate awaiting a throw. Schierholtz dashed home, colliding with the catcher, the impact throwing both players to the ground.

Schierholtz said he didn't realize anyone was upset about the play at first.

"I was laying there dazed and when I looked up there was three guys yelling at me," he said.

One of those yelling was Team China Manager Jim Lefebvre. Lefebvre decried the play as unnecessarily rough. Lefebvre refused to back down when the umpires told him to go back to the dugout and he ended up ejected from the game.

Schierholtz said he believes he made the right play.

"I didn't know how close the throw would be or if he was going to try to turn a double play." He added, "I don't know if it's China or all of Asia but they play a different game. Contact is kind of frowned upon and that is something that goes on in the U.S. When I analyze the situation I feel I had valid reasons for what I did."

When asked about getting hit with the pitch, he said, "I brushed it off and took my base. It's just part of the game."

The game ended with USA winning 9-1, which led them into the finals. They lost 10-1 to first-seed Cuba, and then defeated Japan the next day for the bronze medal.

Schierholtz said all the effort was worthwhile when he felt that medal drop around his neck.

"That whole night was like something out of a dream." He said the feeling of standing on the stage with the members of the Olympic committee putting on the medals was indescribable. "I didn't know what to expect, but it's a night I'll never forget."

Back in the States, Schierholtz has traded in his Olympic jersey for the familiar black and orange of the Giants, who called him back as of Sept. 1. But his time with Team USA has left its mark.

"I'd have to say it's one of the top baseball experiences I've ever had. Just putting on the USA jersey and representing your country. The whole atmosphere is something I've never experienced before, because you're not just playing to win a game, you're playing for your country's pride," he said.

The experience also had its bittersweet moments as there will be no baseball played in the 2012 Olympics. In June, members of the International Olympic Committee voted to remove baseball and softball from the 2012 games. Officials can petition to put it back in 2016, but for guys like Nate Schierholtz it means no return in four years.

"It almost makes me want to learn another sport just so I could go back," Schierholtz said.

So if in four years you hear that Nate Schierholtz is trying out for the USA Olympic beach volleyball team, here's a piece of advice: Don't bet against him.