JUPITER, Fla. – In the old days, when the circus brought its "Big Top" to town, the tent needed to withstand all kinds of unpredictable weather and its setup relied foremost on the center pole. Without it, the tent would come crashing down, and people would scream and stampede and want their money back, the ones that weren't crushed anyway.
The mast was critical enough to the circus that it became known as the "king pole."
You might be able to guess who is the circus and who is the king pole here.
Hint: Johnson stands 6-foot-7.
For all the personnel action in Miami over the past four months – Ozzie Guillen will manage, Jose Reyes will play short, Mark Buehrle and Carlos Zambrano will start, Heath Bell will close and Hanley Ramirez will play third – and all the drama that is sure to come, by April there will be but one man who can keep the tent aloft.
Johnson threw to 10 St. Louis Cardinals batters over 2 1/3 innings Saturday afternoon at Roger Dean Stadium. The pitch count was 52, 32 of them strikes, 16 of those foul balls.
He took the ball in sunshine and handed it back under cloud cover. A thunderstorm approached from the third-base side. Rain threatened to cut the game short in the fifth inning, but by then Johnson was safe in the clubhouse, tending to his arm and shoulder in a routine he picked up from Roy Halladay.
"Nothing is really surprising," said Johnson, who threw a firm but unreliable fastball. "Spring training is always an adventure for me."
The start was the second of spring for Johnson, and inched him closer to opening day. Just 10 months ago, he again was among the elite pitchers in the game. He made nine regular-season starts, felt something abnormal in his right shoulder, skipped a start, then another, then a month and finally the rest of the season.
The diagnosis was an inflamed shoulder, and the fix was rehabilitation, not surgery. As of five days ago, he hadn't thrown a real pitch since May 16 and now has four scoreless exhibition innings to go along with his extended recovery.
He said there was no reason to believe he isn't capable of 200 or more innings, and he knew of no plan to artificially limit his starts, innings or pitches.
"Not that I've heard of," he said. "Hopefully not."
Guillen lowered his glasses and said close to the same thing, adding there'd be no sense adding meaningless innings in a blowout.
"He will dictate to us how much he's going to pitch," Guillen said.
The more the better from Johnson, of course. Which is why, beyond the hundreds of millions of dollars spent by the Marlins this offseason, their greater acquisition will be the 24 starts Johnson didn't make last summer.
"There's no doubt about it," Guillen said. "When he went down last year, you could see this team couldn't pick it up and play better."
While he refused to call Johnson his ace, Guillen did call him, "The glue of the pitching staff," which is close enough.
The season will deliver the Ozzie-fication of the Marlins, a reality television show, Hanley's trudge to third base, a stadium delivered on the backs of suspicious taxpayers, rampant curiosity from the SEC, a team president who – depending on context – either did or didn't insult the very people who are supposed to make this work, and finally immense pressure on them all to win baseball games, which at times has gotten lost amid the numerous tent poles.
The Marlins sort of have to win. Everybody says so.
If they could do that with decorum, with composure, with as few peripheral issues as possible, that would be good, too. But few are necessarily expecting that.
Whatever happens next, you can be reasonably sure it will be somehow spectacular, colorful and come with everything but the bearded lady. Presumably.
And, like all good circuses, one king pole.
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- Ozzie Guillen