CLEARWATER — They gathered for their official group photo Monday morning on the outfield grass of Bright House Field. Now members of Team USA hope to create a picture that outshines the portrait of mediocrity etched by their predecessors in 2006.
That's when a star-studded lineup of major-leaguers, heavy on talent and egos, got knocked out in the second round of the World Baseball Classic with a record of 3-3 and watched Japan defeat Cuba for the title.
But the so-called "Dream Team" — stung by home losses to Canada, South Korea and Mexico — has given way to what many call the "Redeem Team." And the unit wants to follow in the footsteps of the similarly known 2008 U.S. Olympic basketball squad, which found redemption with a gold medal in Beijing four years after a contingent of NBA all-stars struggled to a bronze in Athens.
The 27-man roster includes only five holdovers from '06: shortstop Derek Jeter of the Yankees, third baseman Chipper Jones of the Braves and pitchers Brian Fuentes (Angels), Scot Shields (Dodgers) and Jake Peavy (Padres). For the most part, it's a new crew with a new attitude, managed by former big-league skipper and player Davey Johnson, who helped coach the team three years ago.
"These guys are ready to play," said Johnson, 66, who managed the U.S. Olympic team to the bronze in Beijing, its first medal since 2000. "The first year we did this, it was very difficult. It was glitz and glamour but not a lot of preparation. Mexico eliminated us like they did in '04 and a lot of guys took that to heart. Hopefully this is like a little payback."
The new guys, players such as Philadelphia's Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino, Boston's Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis and Tampa Bay's J.P. Howell, have heard plenty about the last time around. Marquee players such as Alex Rodriguez, Roger Clemens, Ken Griffey, Mark Teixeira and Dontrelle Willis shared in the eighth-place finish. That's why the stakes couldn't be clearer.
"Talking to Derek Jeter, we know what to look for going forward and hopefully have better results," said Rollins, who'll share shortstop duties with Jeter.
"You definitely hear about (what happened) and the expectations that were put on that team and the names that were there," outfielder Victorino said. "You look at this year's team, with the chemistry and the younger talent that's here … and I think the energy level could be a little different."
But Jeter, who batted .450 in six games last time, says 2009 isn't about redemption: "You want to play better. … First time around, I think no one really knew what to expect — players, coaches, everyone. And then you come down here and realize how much fun it was … the sense of pride you have representing your country. We just didn't play well. Now we're a lot better prepared."
For starters, team members were able to play three or four exhibition games with their major-league clubs before reporting for duty Monday. And they'll have two more tuneup games than the two in 2006. Team USA will play today in Tampa against the Yankees, Wednesday in Dunedin against the Blue Jays and Thursday here against the Phillies, before opening the tournament Saturday in Canada.
What's the biggest challenge for Johnson, who guided the Mets to the 1986 World Series title? "Writing the lineup — because I have to leave a few great guys out of (it)," he said. "Talking to some guys like Jeter and Rollins — I've got two great shortstops that 30 managers would kill to have one of them playing short."
Johnson is leaning toward alternating players by game, rather than by at-bats, to help their timing. "If Jeter and (Rollins) want to alternate at short, I have no problem with it," he added.
Jones says that this team is better suited to the international game, with its emphasis on speed (in 2006, Team USA stole only one base in two attempts compared to Japan's 13 steals). But he also likes the team vibe: "We all consider it a privilege to be in this clubhouse … and I think everybody has the attitude that we're going to take advantage of this opportunity to be teammates for once."
The initial tension when the players arrived for their 9:30 a.m. meeting vanished when somebody cracked a joke, and it went well from there.
"We had a roundtable discussion before we came out here and it was Braves, Yankees, Mets, Phillies, all sitting there, talking about fun times," Jones said. "And it's going to take that kind of chemistry for us to do better than we did in '06."