Dan Johnson in the margins

HermanMelville_NewBioImage

I flipped on the television at lunchtime and the Tampa Bay Rays were playing the Toronto Blue Jays in a spring training game. In March, the MLB Network showed two or three of these exhibitions a day, an Observer Effect hazard that over time may very well change the nature of spring training, and baseball itself. When will the last mid-career starting pitcher abandon the time-honored, disciplined practice of throwing nothing but fastballs for four straight innings, taking his lumps from hitters purely in order to regain his arm strength and command, because he knows fans will be watching on television when he gives up a two-run double to some unknown minor-league scrub wearing no. 81? Being able to get a hitter out in March has almost no commerce with preparing oneself to throw a perfect pitch in September. One of the perils of the post-privacy age — call it the Facebook Age, if you insist on branding it — is its exposure of the place where mastery is forged, thus contaminating it.

In the middle innings, the Rays’ and Jays’ managers took the usual spring training decision to replace most of their starters with reserves. Spring training rosters are a pleasantly strange mix-and-match of players. Very few of them are actually in contention for a big-league job; the front office already has a pretty complete sense of the roster after it assembles its talent over the winter. Some are young prospects who are there to rub elbows with big-leaguers and learn how it’s done in The Show before heading out to the farm for another season or more of development. Others are older minor-leaguers headed for the holding pen of Triple-A when March ends, often with an explicit message from the major-league coaching staff to expect their number to be called soon. Still others — the has-beens, the afterthoughts — will be released altogether. They were just ballast under the busy tracks of spring training.

As Toronto manager John Gibbons emptied his bench, it dawned on me that Dan Johnson would be coming into the game for the Blue Jays. Johnson is one of the most famous unknown players in baseball. He played for the Tampa Bay Rays in two different stints, in 2008 and then again from 2010-11, and hit arguably the two biggest home runs in the history of the franchise. Both of them rescued the Rays’ drowning playoff hopes, three Septembers apart. At Tropicana Field, where the Rays play their home games, there’s a seat painted white in a sea of blue ones to commemorate the second of Johnson’s shots heard round the world. It was the key plot point in a night so memorable across the baseball landscape that the legendary sportswriter Joe Posnanski dubbed it “Baseball Night in America.”

It’s almost unnecessary to repeat, but Johnson did this on Baseball Night in America, September 28, 2011: He pinch hit with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning, the Rays down by a run and about to see their improbable, up-from-under charge toward the playoffs halted on the very last pitch of the regular season. Johnson was facing a pitcher with whom he had actually been teammates in Durham just two months earlier. Against this pitcher, he hit a two-out, two-strike home run in the bottom of the ninth inning to tie the game. The Rays won it in extras, and then went on to the post-season. The improbability of Johnson’s feat matched the improbability of what it enabled for the Rays. At the beginning of September, my colleagues at Baseball Prospectus had measured Tampa Bay’s playoff chances at 0.02 percent.

But Dan Johnson has always been comfortable in the smallest of margins. Indeed, to casual baseball fans, he certainly seemed to have come from out of nowhere that night, just as he had three years before, in his very first at-bat as a Tampa Bay Ray. In 2008, he had had a very good season for the Bulls and was called up in September, when rosters expand to accommodate extra players for the stretch run. But his flight to Boston from RDU was canceled and then rerouted through Cincinnati. He arrived at Fenway Park with the game already underway — speaking of margins — and threw on a uniform. He had never met Rays manager Joe Maddon, who called on him to pinch hit in the ninth inning with the Rays losing by a run and their playoff prospects sinking (does this sound familiar?). Johnson hit a home run off of Boston’s All-Star closer Jonathan Papelbon to tie the game, and the Rays scored the go-ahead run later in the inning and won. They wound up making it all the way to the World Series.

Maddon led off his postgame comments that night by thanking Delta Airlines. The baseball writer Jonah Keri nicknamed Johnson The Great Pumpkin, in homage to the Peanuts comic strip phenomenon, which rises mysteriously once a year, and Johnson’s ginger hair. But Johnson has really been there on the margins all along, waiting for his moments — and he has had chances at much more than a moment. He was the Oakland A’s starting first baseman in 2006 but lost the job after an unconvincing half-season of subpar production. Five years later, the Rays made him their starting first baseman, but he hit so badly in April 2011 that it seemed like he had to be playing through an injury. He wasn’t, but then he did get hurt: He got hit in the hand by a pitch on April 16, and although no bones were broken, Johnson couldn’t fully grip the bat after that. Another few weeks of miserable hitting cost him his starting job, and then his roster spot. He was sent back down to Triple-A Durham, where he had won the MVP Award the previous season.

He struggled all through that summer. He told me he had ulnar nerve damage in his hand, but that Tampa Bay’s doctors said there was nothing they could do about it and he would just have to keep swinging. You got the sense that they didn’t really think he was injured and suspected he was just looking for an excuse for his slump. Mostly, you got the sense that they didn’t know what they thought. After the season, they told him his hand would only heal if he stopped swinging.

“I was just poking at the ball,” he told me after that doomed 2011 season, showing me the bruise that lingered on his hand a full year later. It was a terrible shame. Dan Johnson has one of the most beautiful swings I’ve ever seen. It’s not a mighty swing, nor especially picturesque or classic. It “has a lot of moving parts,” Johnson told me a couple of seasons ago in Durham. But it looks effortless and natural — it suits him — and it produces lots of home runs. I asked Johnson how an average-sized ballplayer like him (he looks smaller than his listed six-foot-two, 210 pounds) hit so many long balls with a swing that was almost gentle. Johnson wasn’t sure himself, mumbling a few inconclusive words about “my swing path” and adding that his home runs don’t travel that far; they usually land a few modest rows into the seats. He hits efficient home runs, home runs that hold something back. The seat painted white at Tropicana Field in honor of his greatest home run is actually in the very front row, just behind the right-field wall, and just inside the foul pole. It’s the least wasteful home run you can hit.

Johnson has an unusual batting stance — an “open stance,” as it’s known. He’s a lefty, and his front foot, the right foot, is set off toward the first-base dugout, catty corner in the batter’s box from his back (left) foot. He thus faces the pitcher at an almost forty-five-degree angle, his body exposed, as though he’s sacrificing some self-protection to try to get a wider look at the pitch. If that’s why he does it, it works. Johnson is one of the most selective hitters I’ve ever seen. He rarely swings at a bad pitch. He rarely swings at a good pitch. In his Triple-A career, which stretches back more than ten years and over 3,500 plate appearances, he has walked more often than he has struck out. That’s unheard of in this age of the grip-it-and-rip-it power hitter. Johnson is a throwback, a model of reticence, reliability, punctilio — and inscrutability. He, like his homers, holds something back. I’ve interviewed him dozens of times since 2010, often at length, one-on-one. Although he can be moody, he has usually been forthcoming to the point of loquaciousness; yet I still think of him as taciturn, unyielding, inward. There’s something about him that seems vaguely scheming. He is a sort of baseball Bartleby, “a pallid copyist” drawing out walk after walk after walk — “unexampled diligence,” as Melville calls it — living in the margins but adding the emphatic punctuation of home runs to make himself indispensable.

And like Bartleby, Dan Johnson is immortal. The reasons are different, of course. Johnson, unlike Bartleby (who needed Melville), has made his own immortality with those two home runs of his. He stands for a dream most of us scarcely dare entertain: that out of our ordinary, unseen life, we might ring the eternal bell — and we might do it more than once. To do it twice, three years apart, as Johnson has done, bespeaks not luck or coincidence, but bedrock character, an ability to summon holy water from the deepest well, and which lives on in a seat painted white in a sea of blue.

The Toronto Blue Jays, as it happens, wear blue road uniforms with white lettering. Johnson came up for his lone at-bat against his old team so attired: a walking memorial of himself. There was no great ceremony when he stepped to the plate. The Rays released him just a month after he hit his season-saving home run for them in 2011; since then, in a multitude of uniforms, he has often faced them and their Triple-A affiliate — including the pitcher off of whom he hit that homer. The luster has worn off with his travels. Over the last three years, Johnson has played for seven different teams. When spring training ended, he was dispatched to his eighth, the Blue Jays’ Triple-A affiliate in Buffalo. Yet all of Johnson’s minor-league vagabondage actually betrays a curiously Bartlebyan refusal to move. Since he became a Tampa Bay Ray for the first time, Johnson has played for four of the five teams in the American League East division (the fifth, Boston, is the one whose season he’s ruined with each of his world-changing homers). The other, the White Sox, has its Triple-A affiliate right down the road from Durham in Charlotte, North Carolina, part of the same small, insular International League circuit Johnson seems unwilling to leave. He took one season off, going to Japan in 2009 to cash in for $1.2 million, but he hated it there and came right back to the Durham Bulls.

Two seasons ago, while he was playing for Charlotte, Johnson told me that he had had interest from National League teams, who wanted to put him on their major-league bench for left-handed platoon and pinch hitting duty. But Johnson turned down the guaranteed major-league salary (half a million dollars), plus pension and union membership. He still believed he could be a big-league regular, and in order to land that full-time job he’d have to play in the American League, which has the designated hitter, the position where Johnson’s skills most comfortably belong (although he’s a better first baseman than his reputation allows.) So he gambled on a much lesser minor-league contract and started the last two seasons in Triple-A, hoping for a crack at the bigger dream. (“Bribes he leaves under your own paperweight on your table,” Melville writes of Bartleby.) All you can really say about that kind of self-limiting stubbornness, even if you think it’s deluded, is that it’s admirable, as Melville does of Bartleby’s.

The Blue Jays gave Johnson jersey no. 16 to wear during spring training, a gesture of courtesy and respect for his veteran stature. True nobodies and juveniles are handed out frivolous numbers above the freeway speed limit: 67, 73, 84. As Johnson dug into the batter’s box against his old team, I almost gasped in shock. He had changed his batting stance! Johnson assumed the traditional position, in full profile to the pitcher, just like almost every other hitter. I can still barely believe what I saw, but I saw it. This was not the Dan Johnson I have known for four years — this was not Dan Johnson!

But then, it was. Johnson took the first pitch for a ball. He took the second pitch for a ball. He took the third pitch, probably a little inside, but it was called a strike and Johnson grimaced at the umpire’s call. He took the fourth pitch, too, and this one might have been a little outside, but it was also called a strike, and Johnson began to look frustrated. He swung at the fifth pitch, because he had to, because the umpire was making a profane mockery of the strike zone, which is supposed to be baseball’s sacred space, and he fouled it off. This was precisely the sequence of his white-seat-homer at-bat in 2011: four takes — two balls, two strikes — and then a foul. He had hit the sixth pitch for his game-tying home run that night.

Well, this was spring training, not Baseball Night in America. Dan Johnson saves his heroics for when it matters. He took the sixth pitch for ball three, and then on the seventh flied out harmlessly to left field. Nonetheless, he had an excellent spring training, hitting .357, with three homers in just 29 plate appearances. Strangely, though, he drew only one walk. Maybe, in addition to changing his stance, he was changing his ways. He turns 35 this season, in August, and time is running out on his career.

Bartleby is charged with vagrancy and hauled out of the office. He dies unnoticed in the corner of a prison yard; a dead letter, famously, like those in which he had once trafficked. Dan Johnson is a vagrant, too, of the Triple-A sort, but he isn’t going so quietly — his number is very much alive. This season, he has played in every single one of Buffalo’s ninety-four games (the Bulls happen to be playing against the Bisons up there right now), and he’s the only player in the league to do that for his team. His habitude is total, almost excessive. “I hate to sit,” he told me one afternoon in 2012, when he was playing for Charlotte. He turned to his manager, Joel Skinner, for confirmation: “Don’t I, Skins?” he pressed Skinner. “Don’t I hate to sit?” Skinner just smiled and nodded at his relentless prodigy.

The biggest obstacle Bartleby the Scrivener poses is that he simply refuses to go away, even after he’s fired — even after his befuddled boss takes the drastic step of moving his business elsewhere in an effort to get away from his intractable employee. Johnson is similarly intractable, and he is having a characteristically excellent Johnsonian season: Even with his changed batting stance, he’s leading the Triple-A International League in home runs and walks drawn. In fact, he leads all of affiliated professional baseball in walks — unexampled diligence.

Earlier this week, Johnson was announced as a member of the International League All-Star team. So he was scheduled to be in Durham, this year’s host of the game, during the All-Star break. He’ll probably complain about having made the team, partly because there are only five other off-days in the entire Triple-A season and the “reward” for making the All-Star team is to lose thirty-eight percent of your in-season rest. But mostly he’ll complain because that is what Dan Johnson does. He is notorious for it. Three seasons ago, he was hitting well for the Charlotte Knights but couldn’t get a call-up. “I’m just on the wrong side of luck,” he grumbled to me. Earlier this season, a Buffalo reporter was interviewing him about the great season he’s having up north, and do you know what he told her? “I’m just on the wrong side of luck.”

It’s not all that different from Bartleby’s unceasingly negative watchword, “I would prefer not to.” Yet just this week Johnson told a sportswriter who covers the Blue Jays, “Woe-is-me in this game? Never. If the opportunity arises, I’m ready. It’s what I’ve done a lot of.” Working in the margins can mean working both sides of them, and greatness can be justified there. Johnson talked to the Toronto reporter about “being part of things that go down forever.”

I think of Bartleby, of course, but then I think of a very different American icon and his chronicler. I think of what the great music writer Greil Marcus wrote about the songwriter Randy Newman: another reticent, productive, famous-but-unfamous craftsman who has long done most of his work unseen but, like Dan Johnson, occasionally takes the spotlight — like when he released the 1977 novelty song, “Short People” (“Short people got/No reason to live”). Marcus writes:

“Short People’” became a hit… Newman had, far more perfectly than anyone could have expected, fallen into the trap of acclaim… But the fury over “Short People” made him think; he understood that he… was likely destined for one ride on the charts, and one only. And so, as he told reporters… he went back to work on “a broader insult.”

 

He was back at the margin, scheming.

Sometimes it’s hard to say exactly what you need to get out of Triple-A and up to the major leagues. Often, mostly what you need is to be on the right side of luck instead of the wrong side. You need a break. Lliterally. Both of the Toronto Blue Jays’ first basemen have been injured in the past week or so. The second, Adam Lind, was just diagnosed with a stress fracture in his foot. This morning, the Blue Jays called up Dan Johnson. He’ll be on the big-league roster tonight, but he’s not going to Toronto. The Blue Jays hit the road to play a weekend series in Florida, against the Tampa Bay Rays.

 

 

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>