US ready to make Olympic statement
Johnson's team preparing while soaking in the experience
BEIJING, China -- The United States baseball team had all the collective energy of a giant panda on Thursday night, and yet it was that adorable to watch, too.
Fewer than 24 hours before the opening of the Games of the XXIX Olympiad, and barely 24 hours into life on this side of the world, a jet-lagged and busy group of Major League and gold-medal hopefuls broke ground at Wukesong Stadium with an 11-0 rout of host China in an impromptu exhibition that was allowed to go longer than the scheduled two hours.
After the game, as the lights outside flickered off, one could look around the tiny clubhouse and get a glimpse of just what manager Davey Johnson has to work with here. The U.S. team is by all accounts a come-together club that is serious about simply taking care of business, and if there's any uncertainty about what that business is, here is the rundown:
The Americans want to win a gold medal for the United States, and specifically they want to win the opener on Wednesday against Korea.
They want to go out in style by making a loud and emphatic case for the restoration of baseball, which, along with softball, has been removed by the International Olympic Committee as an event at the 2012 London Games.
They want to be everyday players on a parent team in Major League Baseball -- the unquestionable be-all, end-all for each of these men -- and they have received countless phone calls, e-mails and texts from their teammates and front-office execs in organizations back home urging them on.
They want to survive what they expect to be the toughest Olympic competition in baseball. They know that it won't be as easy as an 11-0 exhibition rout of China. The only spectators on Thursday were volunteers, club personnel and media. They won't rake every pitch thrown to them like they did on Thursday and they won't throw blinding heat past every batter, either. Think the host team will be just a little more inspired when the stadium is full and no less than the glory of a nation is at stake?
Cuba always medals, Japan beat Korea in the first World Baseball Classic and none of the eight teams in the field is considered a sparring partner.
"It's not going to be easy by any means," said Brian Duensing, a left-hander from the Twins' Triple-A Rochester affiliate who threw an inning on Thursday. "Looking at how the teams played last year in the World Cup, they're all going to be good. It's going to be like playing a good Triple-A or Major League team each game. It will be hard."
A journalist from this side of the Pacific Rim, noting the Major League-superstar-stocked U.S. team's inability to get past the semifinals at the World Baseball Classic, asked Johnson earlier in the day: "What is the pressure like and the stress?"
The answer was one you had to love if you like American baseball.
"I wasn't managing that team. Let's get that straight," Johnson said.
"I am managing this team and in this format, and you can put that on my shoulders," he added. "Guys might have taken it lightly [in the World Baseball Classic]. I think Japan was the only team we beat. And the ball was foul, I think."
Chuckles filled the room with the reference to the controversial play in that early U.S. victory over Japan.
Johnson won it all as a member of the Baltimore Orioles. He won it all as a manager of the 1986 New York Mets. Now he is is here to win it all as the skipper of 23 Minor Leaguers, plus one junior-to-be from San Diego State -- projected high 2009 Draft pick Stephen Strasburg. Johnson has Reggie Smith as his hitting coach and Rene Lachemann as his pitching coach.
After its four-game exhibition set against Canada last week in North Carolina, the U.S. club knows more about itself.
What it would like to know a little better is the competition. "Mildly frustrating" might describe their feelings on that matter. Johnson noted that not all the clubs had arrived, and not all of the rosters had been announced. The U.S. team's plan on Thursday was to have workouts in the afternoon, and when it realized it was back-to-back with China for batting practice, it was mutually agreed to play an exhibition under the lights.
The U.S. team will have a workout from 9-10:30 a.m. local time on Friday, just to stay fresh with all the marching they'll have to do later in the day. The Opening Ceremony starts at 8 p.m., and tentatively the team will play an exhibition on Saturday against the Netherlands.
It is a bit of a whirlwind, a bit flying by the seat of your pants, a little bit covert in this kind of competition. Johnson, who has been leading U.S. teams in world play for much of this decade, has learned to roll with it.
A reporter at the press conference asked: "Davey, what is your starting rotation?"
Johnson said, "We do have a starting rotation figured out, but in international play, I found out that nobody wants to tell us who they are pitching. So, I'm going to be mum on that subject."
Reporter, a few questions later: "Why so secretive, when your standard operating procedure as a Major League manager was always to announce starting rotations?"
Johnson: "I've been in international play a long time. A lot of times, we've played teams and they've had two guys warming up in the bullpen right before game time. I haven't even gotten complete rosters left and right."
But make no mistake. Johnson is pretty well set on his rotation, and he feels good about it. There could be adjustments over the course of the next few days as the opener approaches. Johnson already has announced that he will operate with a bullpen A and a bullpen B, saying it's the way he used to manage with the Mets.
|"This is a great experience to be here. When it came closer to being a reality, I just became more and more grateful for the chance to be here. Getting off the plane here, it was a great feeling knowing people are there to see you in the Games."|
|-- Left fielder Matt LaPorta|
Soon enough, the average American baseball fan will know a lot more about these guys. And it will become clear that it's not a prima donna crowd. It's the kind of bunch that says humble things like: "We think we have a good chance."
Left fielder Matt LaPorta, who hit everything hard on Thursday, was still bouncing around life's roller coaster, since he was the key player dealt by Milwaukee to Cleveland in the CC Sabathia trade.
"This is a great experience to be here," LaPorta said. "When it came closer to being a reality, I just became more and more grateful for the chance to be here. Getting off the plane here, it was a great feeling knowing people are there to see you in the Games."
LaPorta's Triple-A Buffalo teammate Jeff Stephens, a reliever who came the Games with 73 strikeouts in 53 2/3 innings combined between Double-A and Triple-A this season, has been giddy so far just hanging around the Athletes Village, star-gazing and soaking in the summer lovin'.
"It's a good place to people-watch," Stephens said.
Can you imagine?
"There's a phenomenal number of star athletes around you," Duensing added. "I saw Michael Phelps, Jennie Finch. We saw the Williams sisters, Serena and Venus. These are athletes you hear about all the time. It's just fun. Everywhere you go, there are people coming at you from a different country. You just say 'Hello' to them."
Say hello to your 2008 U.S. Olympic baseball players. They're about to march in the Opening Ceremony at the Summer Games.
Mark Newman is enterprise editor of MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.