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Johnson keeps the faith

When Clearwater's Howard Johnson gave up his job as a Devil Rays minor-league coach in an attempt to resume his playing career with the New York Mets after a season of retirement, a number of people in and around baseball thought he was crazy.

Now with two weeks to go in spring training, Johnson's career may take an even crazier twist:

"I think I'm going to make it," Johnson said Tuesday. "It's going to be really close."

Johnson, 36, has not been hitting the ball especially well _ a .125 average (3-for-24) in 12 games _ but he has been having fun, playing a number of positions, playing a number of roles, actually just playing again.

"I'm really having a good time _ I know that," Johnson said.

"I have no regrets at all. It's been a success no matter what happens. But the ultimate success is making the ballclub. I think I've got a shot, and that's all I can ask for."

The Mets, naturally, are non-committal about Johnson's status, whether he has a legitimate chance to make the team or is here just to enjoy a (spring) season in the sun. They say he is competing with a number of players for a utility role and that a final decision probably won't be made until the final days of camp.

"He's had a fairly decent camp so far and he's been better offensively than defensively," said assistant GM Steve Phillips, claiming Johnson's average wasn't a concern because he had hit the ball hard and had played in some B games that are not reflected in the statistics.

"He has shown me more than I expected," manager Bobby Valentine said. "It's tough. It's tough for him because he hasn't been competing for a year. And it's tough for us because he hasn't been competing for a year."

The Mets say they like the hustle, the leadership, the spark Johnson could bring to a club that is likely to struggle. "I love having him around," Valentine said. There also is a question of marquee value. On a team where the most recognizable player is a relief pitcher (John Franco), HoJo is a warm and fuzzy link to the years of past success.

"He's a great guy in the clubhouse and a great guy on the team. He's been through the wars. There's a lot of intangibles he has. You can't teach experience, and he has that."

What Johnson has to show most of all is that he can still play. He struggled his last two seasons in the majors, with Colorado in 1994 (hitting .211) and Chicago in 1995 (.195), then "retired" and joined the Rays as a coach at rookie-level Butte in 1996. He was set for a promotion to Class A Charleston when he decided to return to the field.

The first steps were a little weird.

"I had kind of made the transition to the coaching side, evaluating talent and looking at players," Johnson said. "Now it's the other way around. I'm the one being evaluated. In the beginning, I felt a half-step slower than everybody."

Now, Johnson said he feels up to speed _ at the plate, on the bases and in the field (where he has played first, third, left and right). "Each at-bat for me is getting better and better," Johnson said.

Johnson, who claims he doesn't even know what his salary will be if he makes the team, won't go to the minor leagues, but would consider another big-league club. Eventually, he plans to end up back in coaching.

But what he'd really like to do is play this season for the Mets. Then play again next season, when there will be a new team in his old hometown of Tampa Bay.

"(Rays farm director) Tom Foley already told me I was the first Devil Ray to make the big leagues," Johnson said. "I'd love to have that chance. That would be too fun. It would be almost too ironic."

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