Denard Span had been selected as an outfielder for the United States for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. That team would assemble in late July and head off to compete in the Olympic tournament starting Aug. 13.
Span had played 12 games as a Twins rookie in April when Michael Cuddyer was injured. When Cuddyer returned, Span was sent to Class AAA Rochester, where he batted .340 with a .434 on-base percentage in 40 games.
This had Davey Johnson, the Olympic team manager, fully confident he had his leadoff hitter — along with an outfielder adept at all three positions — for the strong competition that was ahead in Beijing.
Then, on June 27 in the Metrodome, Milwaukee’s Seth McClung hit Cuddyer with a pitch to a hand. When it turned out to be a fracture, Span was recalled from Rochester. He would start 81 games over the remainder of that season and hit .297 with an outstanding .393 on-base percentage, assuring the Twins that the 20th overall draft choice from 2002 was indeed a big-league player.
But … no Olympics. Not after he was called up by the Twins a couple of weeks before Johnson’s roster would be announced.
“I was looking forward to Beijing,” Span said. “The consolation prize — getting a chance to play every day in the big leagues — turned out to be excellent.”
The U.S. team, with a pitching staff that included Stephen Strasburg and Jake Arrieta, took bronze.
A dozen years later, if Span ever has a moment of wondering what it would be like to be an Olympian, all he has to do is ask his wife, Anne Schleper, a silver medalist in hockey for the U.S. in 2014.
Anne also could tell Denard about what's like to be one of the standouts on an NCAA title team -- the 2011-12 Gophers. But that might sound like bragging, and she doesn't seem the type.
The Minnesota ties — Denard, 589 games in five seasons for the Twins from 2008 to 2012, and Anne, a hockey standout from St. Cloud — were not a source of the connection between the Spans.
“It was a conversation starter I guess, nothing more,” Span said. “I have to tell you what really brought us together was our faith in God. We discovered early that’s the most important part of our lives.”
Brett Strot, a former Gopher and a coach with USA Hockey, worked at a training center in the Tampa area. Schleper wanted to train with him — and a change of temperature from the North.
Span, a Tampa lad, and Schleper met at a gym, and by 2016, with Anne still playing for the national team and Span playing for the San Francisco Giants, it became a relationship.
They were married on Jan. 27, 2017. A week later, Anne announced her retirement from the U.S. national team after collecting her Olympic silver medal and three golds in the world championships of 2011, 2013 and 2015. In November 2016, she had ended her competitive career by winning a fourth gold medal in the Four Nations Cup.
This week, Denard also revealed his retirement as a player.
“I haven’t announced it, officially, but maybe this is it,” Span said during a midweek cellphone conversation from Tampa.
“I didn’t play last year, after receiving a buyout of my contract … not because of an absence of contact from teams. The offers that came my way; they didn’t seem like fair value for my services.
“I spent this past offseason getting in shape, getting ready to play in 2020, and there were two or three minor league offers. I wasn’t opposed to starting in the minors, but these didn’t seem right as far as having a chance to move up to the big club if I was doing well in Triple-A.”
“I know that if the season ever would get started,” he said, “I still would have the ability to help a team. But 36-year-old outfielders who haven’t played in two years … not happening.
“I’m very satisfied pouring my life into our family, to Anne, a wonderful person, and our two boys.”
D.J. is 2½ and Jace is 6 months. Asked about Denard being around “all the time,” no baseball and also pandemic restricted, Anne said: “It’s very cool. We love to be around one another. He’s easy as a person … and extra help with the kids.”
One unsettling observation for Denard is that D.J. “has absolutely no interest in a ball of any kind.”
“Trucks, coloring, terrorizing the house, but you roll a ball to him and he instantly shovels it out of the way,” Denard said.
Maybe it’s time for a soft puck?
“That would be tough,” Span said. “When I met Anne, I knew zero about hockey. Now I’m up to … maybe 10 percent, if I’m lucky.”