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SKIP-PER! 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 G.M."
Indeed, in 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."