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Davey Goes For Gold

Aug. 11, 2008
Aug. 11, 2008

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Aug. 11, 2008

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Davey Goes For Gold

Eight years after his last major league job, the once hard-living, big-winning manager Davey Johnson is trying to rally the underdog U.S. in what may be baseball's last Olympic stand

SKIP-PER!SKIP-PER!" Davey Johnson was being summoned to the back of the bus as ittraversed ill-lit Cuban back roads, carrying an exultant U.S. national baseballteam on the night of Sept. 3, 2006. The players had beaten Panama that eveningto clinch a bid to the Beijing Olympics, and for the first time on theirnine-day trip, Johnson had permitted a pit stop for the purpose of taking onliquid cargo. From a middle-of-nowhere cantina they bought cases of beer andbottles of Cuban rum. ¬∂ Once back on the bus the Americans began roll-callingtheir roster to stand up and take swigs of the local distillation. When it wastheir 63-year-old manager's turn—"SKIP-PER, SKIP-PER!"—he had littlechoice but to partake. Johnson was 20 years removed from his days of harderliving 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 anda lot of weight), but, he said, "considering the circumstances, that rumtasted pretty good."

This is an article from the Aug. 11, 2008 issue

The team wastoasting mostly out of relief. The mere fact that USA Baseball is Beijing-boundis not worthy of revelry: If you invented the modern version of a sport, andit's still your national pastime more than a century and a half later, youshould be playing it in the Olympics. Yet in 2004 the U.S. was embarrassinglyabsent from Athens, having been upset by Mexico in the quarterfinals of aqualifying 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 Europeanchampionship and would bench-coach in Athens. That was Johnson's first job inbaseball (he initially took it as a favor to his agent) since he'd been firedby the Dodgers in 2000, and he recalls standing next to the U.S. basketballDream Team during the opening ceremonies. "Some of the players recognizedme, 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 inorange and white."

Last week, on ascorching afternoon at the USA Baseball National Training Complex in Cary,N.C., the Orlando-born Johnson had on more appropriate colors: a white number 5jersey, 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 for2012, partly because of Major League Baseball's unwillingness to free its starsfor the Olympics and because of its lackluster drug-testing policy—andJohnson's squad is a dream team only in the sense that the players are allchasing pro dreams. The common bond among this collection of minor leaguephenoms and aging journeymen is that none of them are on a major league team's25-man roster. It's no surprise that Johnson's face is the one plastered on thefront of all the team's literature.

In Cary, beforean exhibition against Team Canada, Johnson paced the dugout, a pouch of chewingtobacco in his back left pocket, flecks of it on his teeth, a lifetime ofbaseball quotations on the tip of his tongue. He stopped leadoff hitter DexterFowler, one of the Rockies' top Double A prospects, and told him, "LikeFrank Howard used to say, 'Give it its head, and let it buck'—that means swinghard. He also liked to say, 'Turn on the fan': Don't let anything get byyou." Fowler, who was born two years after Howard passed the Mets' reins toJohnson in '84, walked away grinning. The previous day Johnson had doled outfist-bumps in the dugout, and he stopped to ask a group of players, "Do youknow how that started? Felipe Alou's kid [Moises] used to piss on his hands [hethought it toughened his skin], and no one wanted to touch them, so they didthis." Laughter ensued, and Davey paced on.

THERE MAY be noOlympic squad more in need of ice-breakers than USA Baseball, whose membersfirst practiced together on July 29 and who will head to China having had justtwo practices and played only four exhibition games. The team held a meeting onAug. 1 at Cary's Umstead Hotel so that the players could introduce themselvesto one another. Double A slugger Matt LaPorta, who became Team USA's mosthigh-profile player after being shipped from the Brewers to the Indians forpitcher C.C. Sabathia last month, thanked the committee for selecting him,saying that the team was "playing in Beijing for every baseball player inthe country." In the same room was 20-year-old San Diego State fireballerStephen Strasburg, the first collegian to make the U.S. Olympic baseball teamsince rosters were opened to pros in '99 (Strasburg may be the No. 1 pick inthe '09 draft), as well as 32-year-old Brandon Knight, who had started for theMets the previous Saturday in place of Pedro Martinez, was designated forassignment the next day, cleared waivers and boarded a plane to join Team USA.Another veteran pitcher, 31-year-old Jeremy Cummings, was released on EasterSunday by the Blue Jays, then shipped off to Taiwan for two months, latercaught 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 inthe Braves' lineup during the Hammer's march toward 715 in '74.

For a manager whoadmitted to burnout after leaving L.A., coaching the U.S. team which Johnsonhas done since 2005, serves as a low-dosage baseball fix without all theannoyances 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 aG.M."

Indeed, inBeijing, Johnson need not worry about receiving castigating notes from Redsowner Marge Schott's dog, Schottzie, as he often did from 1993 to '95; orentering 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 abitch"); 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 questionis whether Johnson, who had a .564 winning percentage in the majors, can dowhat he's always done and win. Eight years have passed since righthander BenSheets beat Cuba for America's lone baseball gold—there's a giant photo ofSheets, falling to his knees on the mound, outside the team store at the Carycomplex—and Cuba, not the U.S., is favored to win this month. Johnson has saidhe'd trade one of the two World Series rings he won as a player for a goldmedal, even though he's aware that Olympic managers aren't eligible forhardware. "If we win," he said, breaking into a sly grin, "I mighthave the Chinese industry over there copy me a medal."

LaPorta thanked the selection committee and said theU.S. team was playing "FOR EVERY BASEBALL PLAYER IN THE COUNTRY."

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PHOTOPhotograph by Chuck SolomonPROSPECTING Johnson (above) rests his medal hopes on journeymen and on promising minor leaguers like Fowler (left).PHOTOPhotograph by Chuck Solomon[See caption above]PHOTOPhotograph by Chuck SolomonPASS IT ON Johnson has educated his younger charges on major league lore, including the (unsanitary) origins of the fist bump.