SKIP-PER!" Davey Johnson was being summoned to the back of the bus as it
traversed ill-lit Cuban back roads, carrying an exultant U.S. national baseball
team on the night of Sept. 3, 2006. The players had beaten Panama that evening
to clinch a bid to the Beijing Olympics, and for the first time on their
nine-day trip, Johnson had permitted a pit stop for the purpose of taking on
liquid cargo. From a middle-of-nowhere cantina they bought cases of beer and
bottles of Cuban rum. � Once back on the bus the Americans began roll-calling
their roster to stand up and take swigs of the local distillation. When it was
their 63-year-old manager's turn—"SKIP-PER, SKIP-PER!"—he had little
choice but to partake. Johnson was 20 years removed from his days of harder
living at the helm of the 1986 world champion Mets, and he wasn't drinking much
(in three operations this decade he has lost his appendix, half his stomach and
a lot of weight), but, he said, "considering the circumstances, that rum
tasted pretty good."
The team was
toasting mostly out of relief. The mere fact that USA Baseball is Beijing-bound
is not worthy of revelry: If you invented the modern version of a sport, and
it's still your national pastime more than a century and a half later, you
should be playing it in the Olympics. Yet in 2004 the U.S. was embarrassingly
absent from Athens, having been upset by Mexico in the quarterfinals of a
qualifying tournament in Panama one year earlier. Johnson was at that game,
too—as a scout for the Dutch, whom he'd managed to the '03 European
championship and would bench-coach in Athens. That was Johnson's first job in
baseball (he initially took it as a favor to his agent) since he'd been fired
by the Dodgers in 2000, and he recalls standing next to the U.S. basketball
Dream Team during the opening ceremonies. "Some of the players recognized
me, and I talked to Tim Duncan a little bit, but it felt really weird,"
says Johnson. "They're in red, white and blue, and I'm standing there in
orange and white."
Last week, on a
scorching afternoon at the USA Baseball National Training Complex in Cary,
N.C., the Orlando-born Johnson had on more appropriate colors: a white number 5
jersey, baggy on his thinned-down frame, with a navy blue USA on the chest.
This could be baseball's last Olympic hurrah—the IOC voted the sport out for
2012, partly because of Major League Baseball's unwillingness to free its stars
for the Olympics and because of its lackluster drug-testing policy—and
Johnson's squad is a dream team only in the sense that the players are all
chasing pro dreams. The common bond among this collection of minor league
phenoms and aging journeymen is that none of them are on a major league team's
25-man roster. It's no surprise that Johnson's face is the one plastered on the
front of all the team's literature.
In Cary, before
an exhibition against Team Canada, Johnson paced the dugout, a pouch of chewing
tobacco in his back left pocket, flecks of it on his teeth, a lifetime of
baseball quotations on the tip of his tongue. He stopped leadoff hitter Dexter
Fowler, one of the Rockies' top Double A prospects, and told him, "Like
Frank Howard used to say, 'Give it its head, and let it buck'—that means swing
hard. He also liked to say, 'Turn on the fan': Don't let anything get by
you." Fowler, who was born two years after Howard passed the Mets' reins to
Johnson in '84, walked away grinning. The previous day Johnson had doled out
fist-bumps in the dugout, and he stopped to ask a group of players, "Do you
know how that started? Felipe Alou's kid [Moises] used to piss on his hands [he
thought it toughened his skin], and no one wanted to touch them, so they did
this." Laughter ensued, and Davey paced on.
THERE MAY be no
Olympic squad more in need of ice-breakers than USA Baseball, whose members
first practiced together on July 29 and who will head to China having had just
two practices and played only four exhibition games. The team held a meeting on
Aug. 1 at Cary's Umstead Hotel so that the players could introduce themselves
to one another. Double A slugger Matt LaPorta, who became Team USA's most
high-profile player after being shipped from the Brewers to the Indians for
pitcher C.C. Sabathia last month, thanked the committee for selecting him,
saying that the team was "playing in Beijing for every baseball player in
the country." In the same room was 20-year-old San Diego State fireballer
Stephen Strasburg, the first collegian to make the U.S. Olympic baseball team
since rosters were opened to pros in '99 (Strasburg may be the No. 1 pick in
the '09 draft), as well as 32-year-old Brandon Knight, who had started for the
Mets the previous Saturday in place of Pedro Martinez, was designated for
assignment the next day, cleared waivers and boarded a plane to join Team USA.
Another veteran pitcher, 31-year-old Jeremy Cummings, was released on Easter
Sunday by the Blue Jays, then shipped off to Taiwan for two months, later
caught on with the Durham Bulls in Triple A and finally earned one of the U.S.
team's last roster spots. Johnson, a major league second baseman for 13 years,
used his own speech to joke about his stint "protecting" Hank Aaron in
the Braves' lineup during the Hammer's march toward 715 in '74.
For a manager who
admitted to burnout after leaving L.A., coaching the U.S. team which Johnson
has done since 2005, serves as a low-dosage baseball fix without all the
annoyances of the big leagues. "There's a purity in this for Davey,"
says USA Baseball executive director Paul Seiler. "There's pressure to win,
but it's a patriotic pressure, not the kind you get from an owner or a
Beijing, Johnson need not worry about receiving castigating notes from Reds
owner Marge Schott's dog, Schottzie, as he often did from 1993 to '95; or
entering into silent standoffs with Orioles owner Peter Angelos, as he did in
'97 ( Angelos was said to refer to Johnson as "that insolent son of a
bitch"); or feuding over personnel issues with Dodgers G.M. Kevin Malone,
as he did in 2000. Trouble is hard to find on the national-team scene.
The big question
is whether Johnson, who had a .564 winning percentage in the majors, can do
what he's always done and win. Eight years have passed since righthander Ben
Sheets beat Cuba for America's lone baseball gold—there's a giant photo of
Sheets, falling to his knees on the mound, outside the team store at the Cary
complex—and Cuba, not the U.S., is favored to win this month. Johnson has said
he'd trade one of the two World Series rings he won as a player for a gold
medal, even though he's aware that Olympic managers aren't eligible for
hardware. "If we win," he said, breaking into a sly grin, "I might
have the Chinese industry over there copy me a medal."