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Published: Wednesday, 8/27/2008

Amazing experience: Mud Hens Hessman, Neal savored Olympics

BY JOHN WAGNER
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
Mud Hens pitcher Blaine Neal, left, and third baseman Mike Hessman wear the bronze medals they picked up in Beijing as members of the U.S. Olympic baseball team. Mud Hens pitcher Blaine Neal, left, and third baseman Mike Hessman wear the bronze medals they picked up in Beijing as members of the U.S. Olympic baseball team.
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Mike Hessman and Blaine Neal have played in the major leagues. But both Mud Hens still were amazed by their experience in the 2008 Beijing Olympics earlier this month.

"I don't really know where to start to describe it," Hessman said. "To be able to meet athletes like the basketball players, the softball team and the track athletes was special.

"To be able to go out there and hang out [with those athletes] just like the guy on the street was really something special."

Hessman and Neal were members of the U.S. baseball team that earned a bronze medal at the Games, but they agreed that the experience was about more than the contests themselves.

The 12-hour flights to and from China weren't a lot of fun - "We upgraded to business class, so it wasn't too bad," Neal said of the flights - but both said the rest of the experience was unforgettable.

"I was able to go see the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square," Hessman said. "I went by myself, so I didn't have a tour guide or information on what I was seeing, but it was interesting to check out for myself."

Neal said the Olympic Village was impressive.

"It's not really a village, it's more like a city," Neal said "We stayed in a bunch of high-rise buildings that were brand new, and they were nice.

"The cafeteria alone was four or five football fields long and a football field wide. You don't realize how big it is until you go there and are a part of it."

While the focus was on baseball, Hessman said meeting the athletes in other sports was eye-opening.

"It was amazing to see the shape some of these athletes were in. I felt I needed to jump back into the gym," Hessman said. "Just to think about some of these athletes, who put in four years of hard work and dedication just for a few days of competition, was pretty amazing.

"It was really hard to get tickets, especially to some of the bigger events. I was able to get to the Water Cube and see the synchronized diving, and that was a good time."

On the field the U.S. baseball team advanced to the semifinals before losing to Cuba 10-2. Then the U.S. team rebounded with an 8-4 victory over Japan to claim the bronze medal.

"While we didn't get the gold, we did come home with a medal, and that was outstanding," Hessman said. "The teams we lost to [Korea and Cuba] won the gold and silver, so you just have to tip your hat to them."

Hessman hit .091 with one home run in five Olympic games, while Neal had a 7.36 ERA in three appearances. But Neal said the on-the-field experience also was unforgettable.

"Most of us didn't know each other [before the Games]," he said. "But we got along very well, and by the time it was done we all wished we had known one another before.

"When we took that step onto the podium, it didn't matter if we had gold or bronze around our necks, we were smiling from ear to ear."

While both were back in Toledo for just the second day, the pair agreed that their Olympic experience hasn't sunk in fully.

"I think it's one of those things that, as time passes, I'll come to appreciate even more," Neal said. "Looking back, it was more than I ever expected."

Yesterday both Hessman and Neal received another honor as they were selected to the International League's postseason all-star team.

Hessman was chosen as the league's top third baseman, while Neal was selected as the IL's top reliever in a vote of the league's managers, coaches, media and club representatives.

"To still be considered even though I spent three weeks in China for the Olympics is an honor," Hessman said. "I was gone for a while, but to have people still put me on the ballot means something to me. I appreciate the vote."

Neal agreed, adding, "That's also a credit to the rest of the guys in the clubhouse. If not for the way we played early in the year, when they put me in position to put up some numbers and succeed, I wouldn't have the award. I have to share it with them."

Contact John Wagner at:

jwagner@theblade.com

or 419-724-6481.



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