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Monday, March 2, 2009
Team USA ready this time

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Three years ago, they had no idea what they were in for.

They had no idea how ready the rest of the world was. They had no idea how not ready they were themselves. And, worst of all, the world-famous members of Team USA had absolutely no idea the World Baseball Classic was about to turn into their own little international embarrassment.

"We thought we'd crush everybody," Todd Jones, a member of Team USA's star-studded 2006 bullpen, recalled Monday. "So we were all concerned about playing time."

Oops. Not for long.

They had no idea they could fall eight runs behind Canada by the sixth inning. They had no idea they could get shut down by a bunch of tricky Korean pitchers they'd never heard of. They had no idea that Oliver Perez and seven Mexican relievers could outduel Roger Clemens and oust them in the second round.

But it all happened, in very real life. And the men who were a part of Team USA's 2006 WBC nightmare think they know exactly why it happened.

Three years ago, said Davey Johnson, a coach on the 2006 edition but the manager this time around, "It was kinda like glitz and glamour -- but not a lot of preparation."

So that brings us to Monday, the day the 2009 version of Team USA hit the field for the first time. There's a pretty fair chance you won't have any trouble telling this team from, say, South Africa's.

It's a team with 14 former All-Stars, three former MVPs, three onetime rookies of the year, a 20-homer man at every position on the field, Jake Peavy and Roy Oswalt at the top of the rotation and a bullpen that includes seven different smokeballers who averaged better than a strikeout an inning last year.

But assembling talent was never this team's biggest challenge -- not even in a year during which somebody or other seemed to be excusing himself from the roster every 15 minutes during the past few days.

Nope, the biggest challenge has been trying to make sure this team -- unlike the last one -- is actually ready to play when it kicks off this extravaganza Saturday in Toronto. And the manager thinks that mission already has been accomplished.

"We're definitely more prepared than we were a few years ago," Johnson said.

There's a reason spring training started on Feb. 14 this year, even though the season won't open until April 5. There's a reason the Grapefruit League and Cactus League games were already rolling by Feb. 25, the earliest opening date ever.

And you could sum up that reason in three letters -- WBC.

When the powers that be studied why Team USA's rule-the-world dreams blew up last time, they didn't have to study long. Turned out they'd forgotten one minor detail that soon turned into a major disaster:

They forgot that baseball players need to play.

"Three years ago, we only had one exhibition game, against the Giants," said Chipper Jones, one of four players on this team who were around in 2006. "So in my case, I'd played in one [exhibition] game for the Braves, against [the University of] Georgia. Then I had two at-bats in that San Francisco game. So I had four live at-bats before we had to step it up [in the WBC].

"Not a real good setup for success," Jones concluded, pretty darned astutely.

You could make a fine case, of course, that five days of spring training games -- followed this week by three Team USA exhibition games -- isn't a whole lot better of a setup for success, considering that some countries have been gearing up for the WBC for months. But in the manager's eyes, this is still a massive improvement on 2006.

"I think the biggest thing is that most of these guys now have had 10 to 12 at-bats," Johnson said. "And that's really big. Most of the pitchers have had at least one or two outings. That's huge.

"And just knowing that the competition is going to be tough. Taking it seriously. Preparing a little bit. So I think mentally and physically, this group is much more prepared than a few years ago."

Three years ago, they didn't get it. Maybe they couldn't have gotten it until they'd been through it. But much like their hoops brethren, the 2004 Dream Team, they made the mistake of assuming they'd be the ones kicking butt just because this was their game.

It wasn't until they actually started playing, and getting whupped, Todd Jones said, when "we found out other countries had worked out since Jan. 1. Heck, even Korea got military exemptions if they got to [the final four in] San Diego.

"So there was a lot on the line for all those [countries] except ours," he said. "We [just] wanted to get our work in and not get hurt."

That's not normally a real good prescription for how to wind up on the old medal stand. But fortunately, Johnson was there to witness it firsthand. And apparently, he was taking notes.

"I think Major League Baseball understood that there were a lot of guys a couple of years ago who felt like they were big leaguers who'd had great careers and they could just throw their glove out on the mound and get people out," he said. "I think now they realize that all around the globe, there are some great baseball players playing for Mexico, and Italy, and these countries can beat you."

When one of Johnson's media inquisitors brought up the Dream Team's issues in a different sport, it didn't take any arm twisting to convince the manager of the parallels.

"I think it's pretty much a similar thing," Johnson said. "I overheard Dustin Pedroia today talking about how Dice-K was rubbing it in all the time, talking about how 'we won, and you guys weren't even around.' So I know these guys don't want to have to hear that again this year."

Then again, the Japanese team has been working out together for weeks. The American team didn't even find itself in the same locker room, or working out on the same field, until Monday.

Next up, it's exhibition games against the Yankees on Tuesday, the Blue Jays on Wednesday and the Phillies on Thursday, followed by a postgame flight to Toronto and the real deal. So if these guys are to bond, they'll have to do it fast.

And let's just say there are some, uh, natural barriers to that bonding. The Phillies' Jimmy Rollins, for instance, reported that when he reached his locker, he found the Mets' David Wright stationed just two lockers over. Luckily for them, the man in between them turned out to be their personal U.N. peacekeeper.

"Sure enough, [Derek] Jeter comes in, gets to his locker and says, 'They put me in between you two? Huh? Peace,'" Rollins said, laughing. "And that kind of broke the ice right there. So that's why he's the captain."

Whether Johnson can maintain that peace when he tries to figure out whom to start at short -- Jeter or Rollins -- and whom to start at third -- Wright or Chipper -- is a whole different sort of challenge. But the manager is already looking for ways to stay out of that fray, too.

"I've got Hall of Fame coaches on this staff," Johnson quipped. "And I had them submit lineups to me. So if these guys don't like my lineup, I'll tell them it was [Barry] Larkin's idea. Or Mike Schmidt's. I'll take the heat off me."

But (ba-dum bum) seriously, folks, Johnson also hopes to take the heat off his players by giving them as much say in their fate as possible.

He asked players Monday which ones were used to getting the green light to run on their own. He checked on which position players felt they were ready to play all nine innings, and which ones weren't. And he let them know that "I've never been one to overmanage."

But however all that shakes out, the manager has a good feeling about this group -- good enough that he ripped a page out of his shortstop's psych-'em-up handbook by predicting that Team USA is the "team to beat" in this tourney.

That forecast had Rollins kidding Monday that he should have trademarked that line and gotten a stipend from his manager out of it. But Davey Johnson wasn't acting like a man who is real concerned about getting a bill.

"From now on, I'll just let him [Rollins] be the spokesman," Johnson said, chuckling.


TUESDAY -- AT YANKEES IN TAMPA (Roy Oswalt versus Phil Hughes)

WEDNESDAY -- AT BLUE JAYS IN DUNEDIN (Ted Lilly versus Brad Mills)

THURSDAY -- AT PHILLIES IN CLEARWATER (Jeremy Guthrie versus Kyle Kendrick)


• NEXT GAME: SUNDAY (if beat Canada) or MONDAY (if lose to Canada)