FORT MYERS, Fla. -- She had sent him to the back of the line when he'd come for his baseball uniform.
"You're not an athlete," she had sneered, "you're a coach."
And so he was left with this. Pants too small for a Little Leaguer. The shirt? "You could have fit two Big Papis inside," Jon Deeble said.
Deeble was an Aussie in Athens, coaching a team seemingly as ill fit for the odyssey that lay ahead as the size 26 pants and XXXL shirt he'd just been handed. Only four years earlier, in the Sydney Olympics, Australia had held the home-field advantage, and finished next to last.
Every Aussie team was assigned a hero that Olympics to serve as an unofficial mascot and cheerleader. The Aussie baseball team got Peter Brock, the legendary auto racer. "Our Dale [Earnhardt]," Deeble said of Brock, who died last year in a crash .
Brock was gung-ho when it started, said he'd take the boys for a spin in his car, but after the Aussies were beaten in their first game, Brock vanished. "Give us Neville Nobody," Deeble had said this go-round. "The lowest-profile guy you got.
"They gave us Russell Mark. He's a shooter ."
Mark was a gold-medal marksman, assigned to one of the great long shots in Olympic history. Americans can have their Miracle on Ice. In 2004, Deeble and his blokes were about to fashion one of the most improbable runs to Olympic glory as any team in any sport ever had, one that would require them to beat Japan twice, including a 1-0 win against Daisuke Matsuzaka, and brought them face to face with mighty Cuba in a gold-medal game they might have won if not for a terrible umpiring call.
Deeble would again come face to face with Matsuzaka, this time while working for the Red Sox. As the director of Pacific Rim scouting, he dogged Matsuzaka for years and laid the groundwork for the Sox' successful quest to acquire the Japanese ace.
No one is more zealous than Deeble in his belief that Matsuzaka will be as dominating in the big leagues as he was against the rest of the world. But for one incredible day in Athens, Dice-K, despite striking out 14, could not conquer Deeble's Aussies.
You know how they say you can know a game just by reading the box score? When Deeble scans the box score of that game, he compares the names in his lineup with the names of the Japanese.
"Gavin Fingleson? He's a personal trainer on Bondi Beach," Deeble said. "He's out there every morning at 5 o'clock, with corporate types.
"Brett Roneberg , he's Double A with the Pirates [and a former Red Sox farmhand]. Dave Nilsson ? Retired. Glenn Williams , Triple A Twins. Brendan Kingman , he's working in a factory selling shower accessories. [Andrew] Utting ? I think he's unemployed, going back to school, working part time doing some baseball stuff. [Thomas] Brice? He was released, playing in Taiwan.
"[Paul] Gonzalez, he's a sales rep for a company that does wrappers for
Deeble turned to the Japanese lineup. Fukudome, a batting champion . Miyamoto , captain of the Yakult Swallows. Takahashi signed a huge deal with the Tokyo Giants. Johjima, with Seattle. Nakamura was with the Dodgers last year.
"This guy Tani , he's a superstar," Deeble said. "We tried to sign him this year, but he wanted to stay in Japan. Ogasawara , a batting champion. He wants to be in the Japanese Hall of Fame. He dominated. One of the two best hitters in Japan, with Fukudome. Wada , the DH, he's a free agent. Daisuke, of course, and Iwase, he's the premier lefthanded reliever in Japan."
"That's probably a $200 million payroll," he said. "These guys [the Aussies], put all their limbs together, and they're probably worth $3.50 a pound."
Deeble played baseball because his father, Don, did. "My dad was a legend of Australian baseball," he said. "I never saw him play in his peak, only when he was in his 40s. People say he could have played in the major leagues but that wasn't available at that time. My mother played three sports for Australia: basketball, netball, and softball."
A lefthanded pitcher, Deeble won the first-ever game for Australia in the '88 Olympics vs. Canada. He also pitched in four world championships and three Intercontinental Cups. When Australia started a pro league in the 1990s, Deeble played first base, pitched, and managed the Melbourne Monarchs, who also placed him in charge of marketing.
He came across the pond after being scooped up by the Florida Marlins, first as a scout, then as manager of their Gulf Coast League rookie team. Lowell Spinners fans remember him as manager of the 2003 short-season club; he'll be back in the same capacity this season, which is good news for the local
But it was Lloyd, the former Yankee, who spoke up when it appeared the Aussies were headed toward another debacle.
"The bus was pretty quiet," Deeble recalls, "and Lloyd says, 'You know what, guys? This reminds me of the World Series of '96 when we were down, 0-2, against the Braves and we came back to win. This is a great team. Keep doing what we're doing. Keep executing.' It really picked the guys up."
Craig Shipley was the first Aussie to play in the big leagues, making it with the Dodgers in 1986. He and Deeble are extremely close; together, they tracked Matsuzaka as a prelude to his signing with the Red Sox.
"The biggest thing was Deebs creating a winning environment," said Shipley, the Sox' vice president of professional and international scouting. "When you grew up here, it was, 'Cuba, we can't beat Cuba. Japan? No way we can beat them.' But Deebs knew these teams. He said, 'They're not that good. Don't worry about the aura. If you execute, we can beat these guys.' "
The Aussies reeled off wins. Oxspring helped to hold the Italians to one hit, and the bats awoke against Japan, the Aussies scoring six runs late in a 9-4 win. Another win followed against Greece, and when they routed the Netherlands, 22-2 , they were in the medal round, with Dice-K looming.
Matsuzaka was sensational. "I remember the guys walking back to the dugout, saying they couldn't touch him," Deeble said, "including Nilsson."
The Aussies did not have a hit until the fifth. But in the sixth, Roneberg grounded a single to left, and Nilsson worked a 10-pitch walk off Matsuzaka. That brought up Kingman -- "Big, fat, huge," Deeble said, "but talented.
"I don't know what he hit, maybe a splitter, but he hit it over the second baseman's head."
The Aussies had a run. The Japanese, who came into the game with a team batting average of .329, put two runners on in the seventh. Deeble brought in Williams to face Atsushi Fujimoto, his Hanshin teammate. "I was shaking like a leaf," Williams said.
Fujimoto popped to third, Williams threw two more shutout innings, and the Aussies were in the title game.
In the interview room after the game, Matsuzaka was there, and so were dozens of Japanese reporters. But there were no reporters from Australia, Deeble said.
For the gold-medal game, Deeble wore a warm-up jersey with the sleeves cut off. "And it was about 140 degrees," he said.
Former Pawtucket righthander John Stephens got the start for the Aussies, who were robbed of a game-tying two-run double when a ball that caromed off the wall was ruled a catch. Deeble came racing out of the dugout to argue. He was tossed by the umpire, before he'd even said a word.
"He said I rolled my eyes at him," said Deeble, who believed the umpire, a Dominican, was intimidated by the Cubans. "It wasn't corrupt, but it was as close as you can get. But I was the first coach ever to get tossed."
In the clubhouse, where he couldn't even see the game, Deeble spotted a volunteer. He traded caps, put on a warm-up jacket, and slipped back into the dugout. His presence didn't help; the Aussies fell, 6-2.
Still, there was elation, and the medal ceremony . . . until one more indignity for the coach.
"No medals for the coaches," he said incredulously. "We coaches sat in the dugout, until the boys called us out for a photo."
Ahead, though, was the hero's welcome home -- except there was none. "I didn't do a single interview," Deeble said.
It was a much bigger story in Japan. A Japanese TV network sent a crew to Deeble's house. For hours, he said, they asked him if he could explain how the Aussies could have beaten the Japanese not once, but twice. Finally, Deeble gave them a story: He had a pilot friend in the States who'd taken his team up 8,000 feet and had them all parachute out of the plane. How could they be intimidated by the Olympics?
None of it was true, but it ended up on the air. When he went to Japan the following spring, he had lunch with Sadaharu Oh, the legendary slugger. "The first thing he asked me," Deeble said, "was how did we do it?"
At the end of the year, the Herald-Sun, the biggest paper in the country, counted down the top 20 sports stories of the year, starting with No. 20, over a week's time. Twenty, 15, 10, 5, 2 . . . still no Aussie baseball.
"I couldn't believe it," Deeble said. "We were going to be No. 1.
"I got up the next morning, opened the paper, and the No. 1 story of the year was . . . the Red Sox winning the World Series."
Gordon Edes can be reached at email@example.com.