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Olympics or the majors?
If local pitcher Mike Johnson gets the call from the Expos, it could get interesting
By TERRY JONES -- Edmonton Sun

The Olympics is on Sherwood Park, Alta. product Mike Johnson's mind. (Edmonton Sun/BRENDON DLOUHY)

The thing they always say about triple A is you're one phone call away from the bigs.

But try this for a twist.

Mike Johnson has just received the phone call which will take him to the Olympic Games in Athens.

He's going to be an Olympian. He'll march in the opening ceremonies. He'll stay at the Olympic Village. He'll receive all the Olympic gear and outfitting. And maybe, just maybe, he'll win an Olympic medal.

Unless ...

Unless he gets that one phone call to the major leagues.

It's not often you'll see a minor-league ball player looking at that phone in the dressing room half-hoping it doesn't ring. But Johnson and a few of his potential Canadian teammates spread around the minor- league landscape are suddenly in that position.

Guys like former Edmonton Trapper Justin Morneau. And 1999 Winnipeg Pan-Am Games hero Stubby Clapp.

SPENDING THIS SEASON AS A TRAPPER

Johnson, the Sherwood Park product who has previously pitched in the majors with the Baltimore Orioles and the Montreal Expos, has been spending this season as a Trapper.

He won't actually come out and say he doesn't want that phone to ring now. But "It's sort of strange because you're here trying to get to the major leagues. This is what it's all about. And I think I have a better idea about pitching now than when I was in the majors," he tried to explain the emotions involved.

"But the Olympics is once in a lifetime.

"It's Canada. It's ... well, either way it's a good thing, right? If you get called up, great. Nobody is going to complain about getting called up to the big leagues. But the worst thing that could happen is to get called up and then get sent down before the Olympic run starts."

Aug. 1 is the day the players leave their minor-league clubs to become Team Canada again.

"I never thought about playing in the Olympics, only about being in the major leagues," said the 28-year-old of growing up in the Edmonton area.

"Ever since we qualified, I've thought about it a lot. I think we have a really good chance to win a medal.

"Other than actually playing, the thing I'm thinking most about is marching in the opening ceremonies and being in the athletes village and over in Greece at the one Olympics being held back where the Olympics started.

"Getting the call from Baseball Canada meant a lot," he said yesterday prior to going to the park where he improved his record to 6-3, holding the Portland Beavers to five hits over seven innings in an 11-3 win the night before.

"It meant a lot to be part of Team Canada to qualify for the Olympics," he said of the tournament in Panama where the results stunned the baseball world. The U.S. failed to qualify. And Canada did.

"I'll remember that bus ride home from Estadio National with all the players singing O Canada, really belting out the anthem, and then getting back to the hotel and putting our uniform tops back on and celebrating together.

"We kinda keep together on e-mail and it's great to see that Baseball Canada is following through with their intention to make as many members of the qualifying team an actual member of the Olympic team."

They deserve it.

"I don't think anybody gave us a chance. Nobody even considered it. I think we opened a lot of eyes about Canadian baseball.

"The great thing about the team was that nobody thought they were bigger than the team. We bonded pretty good. It's amazing how it happened so quickly."

Johnson says it'll be great to get the nucleus of that team together again.

"Rob Ducey is coaching at the AA level for the Expos," he said of one of the interesting transitions. He'll go back to being a player.

After a year playing in Japan and a career on the fringe of the big leagues, where he had a record of 7-14, Johnson came back not knowing where he'd fit into pro ball this year. But the Expos made it interesting by signing him and sending him to his old hometown to play in front of dad Keith, mom Debbie and brother Chris and bring his wife Kelly back to Sherwood Park where his family could enjoy a summer with eight-month-old daughter Alyssa.

"It worked out really well for the family. The Trappers are a really good organization. They treat the players well. It's the last year they're going to be in triple A, so that was an opportunity. And to go to the Athens Olympics with Canada ... that's a huge deal."

Struggling in the bullpen early this Pacific Coast League season, Johnson was moved into the starting rotation and has it going now, something which bodes well for Team Canada.

"I'm throwing really well right now. I'm glad to be back in the rotation. If I go there, I'm going to start," he said.

Now just to keep it going and hope the phone doesn't ring.