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COLUMNISTS

Fri, August 13, 2004

Dressed to thrill


ATHENS -- Stubby Clapp stood out there on his field of dreams, wearing cutoff blue jeans as he scooped up ground balls.

It seemed almost sacrilegious.

"The airline lost a lot of our luggage," the Stubster said with a shrug yesterday. "This is what I wore on the plane."

They arrived from pre-Olympic play in Italy looking like the Bad News Bears. But their attitude was who cares?

Canada's Olympic baseball players took to the beachfront stadium, where they hope to play the gold-medal game, and were definitely a group of giddy guys.

Like the others, Mike Johnson may not have looked like a million dollars. But he felt like it.

NO. 1 CANUCK CHUCK

He had just been named No. 1 Canuck chuck. The ace. The starting pitcher for Canada's Olympic opening-day Sunday against Chinese Taipei. He'll also get the call for Game 5 of the round-robin against Japan. And he projects to be the go-to guy for the final day of the Olympic tournament to win a medal.

"I'm excited," said Johnson, a former Baltimore Oriole and Montreal Expo pitcher from Sherwood Park who is playing at home this season for the triple-A Edmonton Trappers.

"It's an honour to get Game 1. It looks like I'll get to pitch three games, the two against the teams from the Orient and the gold- medal game. I welcome the challenge. I liked it last year."

The 6-foot-2 right hander won the game at the qualifying tournament in Panama last year that put Canada in the Olympics.

"I'm pumped up and ready to go," he said.

And manager Ernie Whitt is ready to go with him.

"I'm very comfortable he's going to throw good games for us," Whitt said.

"I decided to go with him because, No. 1, he threw the ball well last November in qualifying and this last month he has been throwing the ball very, very well in Edmonton."

Johnson says he has goosebumps the size of baseballs.

Nothing to do with getting the honour to be Canada's No. 1 pitcher. He's kind of calm about that. It's everything else.

"It's all just kicking in. We've moved into the athletes village. To be in there with all the other athletes ... you know you're going to the Olympics but you don't think about being an actual Olympian until you go to the athletes village."

Whitt, a former Blue Jays catcher, says it was an experience just showing up.

"It also felt comfortable looking around and coming to the ballpark. It feels like we're in (spring training in) Arizona," he said.

Rob Ducey, also a former Blue Jay who is now a hitting instructor for the Expos organization but returning to a playing career here, says the village was a little disconcerting, being a baseball player and all.

"Walking around there and looking at all the greatest athletes in the world, we suffer by comparison. Most of these athletes are chiselled out of stone."

GET THEIR NEW DUDS

Maybe the ball players will feel less out of place once they get their new duds.

"We go from here to get all our outfits and clothing for the opening ceremony," Johnson said. "I can't wait to march in the opening ceremony with the other Canadian athletes. I can't wait to take it all in, to experience the atmosphere, the show, everything ...

"I get chills just thinking about it."

The baseball game?

"That's the baseball game. You don't want to make it bigger than a baseball game. You want to stay within yourself."

In 31 C heat, it was a perspiration-drenched motley crew of Canadians who completed a two-hour practice at 11 a.m.

"I love this team," Whitt said. "They play with a pride and a passion for their country.

"I think people saw that at the Pan-Am Games in Winnipeg (in 1999, when Canada won a bronze medal). That's where this all started."

Clapp said this team was comparable to the one that captured gold in Winnipeg. "We're going to enjoy the moment, have fun and bring back a gold medal."


Does Canada's low-medal haul in Athens bother you?
Yes, it depresses me
No, it's just sports
I'm disappointed, but not worried
We'll get 'em in Turin
Don't care

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