Blaine's Dan Johnson: From major-league spotlight back to shadows

  • Article by: JOE CHRISTENSEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 13, 2012 - 12:37 PM

Despite many injuries, former Blaine star Dan Johnson has had some big moments in an 11-year baseball career. But now he's looking for a job.

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Dan Johnson looked for the scuff on the bat he used last Sept. 28 to help Tampa Bay win an improbable comeback against the New York Yankees on the final day of the season and advance to a divisional series. His wife, Holly, left, was watching at their Ham Lake home. After saving Tampa Bay’s season, the Rays released him in November and Johnson, 32, is still hoping to catch on with a team even as he builds his second career.

Photo: Brian Peterson, Star Tribune

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As the events of last Sept. 28 unspooled for baseball fans across the country, Holly Johnson had a household to run in Minnesota.

It was the last night of the regular season, but it was also a school night. Dan Johnson's wife was six month's pregnant. She'd given baths to her two boys, tucked them in bed, and told them their daddy could be back home in Ham Lake the next day.

A dream was dying for the Tampa Bay Rays. They'd trailed the Boston Red Sox by nine games in the wild-card race four weeks earlier and pulled even heading into this final night. But in the eighth inning at Tropicana Field, Tampa Bay trailed the visiting Yankees 7-0, and the Red Sox held a 3-2, seventh-inning lead in Baltimore.

It had been a trying year for the Johnsons, with another injury spoiling another opportunity for Dan, leaving his career sputtering yet again.

He was batting .108 and idling on the bench again, as the Rays began another late charge, trimming New York's lead to 7-6.

In Minnesota, it was 9:37 p.m. when Rays manager Joe Maddon sent Johnson to the plate, asking him to perform a baseball miracle. Holly watched in disbelief.

"I'm kind of getting ready to doze off," she said. "All of a sudden, I hear the announcer say 'Dan Johnson,' and I was like, 'What?' So I look at the screen, and here comes Dan -- two outs, bottom of the ninth."

She knew her husband had a flair for the dramatic, but his last major-league hit had come in April. She and the boys had spent most of the season with him in Durham, N.C., while he struggled to hit Class AAA pitching with an injured left wrist.

Now, Maddon had summoned Johnson to pinch-hit, resting the entire season on his shoulders.

As her red-bearded husband emerged from the dugout and took his practice swings, Holly had one prevailing thought: "Are they really going to do this to him?"

Weathering adversity

Holly said she believes last year was the toughest of Dan's 11 professional seasons. She's been there from the beginning, having met him at the University of Nebraska, where he used to introduce himself at parties as, "Dale Edwards, captain of the bowling team."

Johnson did bowl, but only for fun. A former hockey player at Blaine High School, he blossomed into an elite power hitter at Nebraska. The Oakland Athletics drafted him in the seventh round in 2001, and made him their starting first baseman in 2005, replacing Scott Hatteberg of "Moneyball" fame.

But after a promising rookie season, Johnson's luck completely changed. On the last day of spring training in 2006, Johnson went to spray sunscreen on his arm and accidentally shot it into his right eye. He had trouble seeing breaking pitches all year, and it wasn't until the season ended that he was diagnosed with double vision.

The next spring, after months of vision therapy, Johnson could see clearly again. But one day, he went to throw the ball around the horn after a double play, and the runner charging down the first baseline clipped his leg, tearing Johnson's hip labrum.

These and other setbacks turned Johnson into a forgotten story until Sept. 9, 2008, when he delivered his first fairy tale moment for Tampa Bay. Promoted from Class AAA earlier that day, Johnson hit a pinch-hit, game-tying home run off Jonathan Papelbon at Fenway Park.

"That was one of the greatest feelings because it was so loud in there," Johnson said, "After I hit it, I could hear my footsteps as they were hitting the dirt."

The Red Sox could have taken over first place that night, but the Rays won and never looked back, upending Boston in the ALCS before losing the World Series to Philadelphia.

"Even if Dan had never gotten another hit for us, that home run off of Papelbon would have given him his place in our history," Rays GM Andrew Friedman said in an e-mail.

But after playing 2009 in Japan and spending most of 2010 at Class AAA with the Rays, Johnson knew he was running out of opportunities. Tampa Bay made him its Opening Day first baseman last year, but he had another slow start, and on April 15, he got drilled in the left wrist with a fastball from Twins reliever Matt Capps.

Though X-rays showed no broken bones, Johnson had a deep bruise and nerve damage. The injury limited him through the summer in Durham, where he batted .273 with 13 homers in 93 games.

Johnson was disheartened when he learned the big-league staff had been mostly unaware of his injury.

"They just thought I was having a tough year," Johnson said. "I was like, 'Really? You haven't noticed a swing where one hand works and the other one doesn't?'"

Johnson turned 32 in August. His friends and family members never doubted his ability, but they wondered how much misfortune one player could take.

"He's not old by any means, but in baseball years, he's getting there," Holly said. "This year, it kind of felt like it could go either way. Like, this could be the end of it. That's really hard."

One more shot

Maddon, who'd been rewarded for his faith in Johnson against Papelbon, decided this was worth one more shot.

Already assured their own playoff spot, the Yankees were giving Mariano Rivera the night off, but they had righthander Cory Wade and his 1.85 ERA on for the save opportunity.

Told he'd be hitting fifth that inning, Johnson was back in the batting cage, getting loose. Wade recorded two quick outs, and with Sam Fuld due up third, Maddon called a sudden audible. He later said Fuld would have hit if a runner had been on base, but with nobody on, he needed a home run threat. He wanted Johnson. Now.

"I heard the security guard say, 'You're up!' And I'm, like, 'When?'" Johnson said. "He's like, 'Now! You need to get down there right now!'"

Johnson hustled downstairs, threw on his helmet, collected his thoughts.

"I love those situations," he said. "I thrive off them. I'm able to control my body. My thought process is real clear. Everything slows down."

He knew this pitcher well. In one of those small-world coincidences, Wade actually had been Johnson's teammate in Durham during May before latching on with the Yankees. Wade's best weapon, especially against lefthanded hitters such as Johnson, is a change-up.

The at-bat lasted six pitches. After he laid off the third offering -- "I just took a fastball right down the middle. What am I up here for? What am I trying to do?" Johnson remembers thinking -- the Rays were down to their final strike.

He watched a change-up miss for a ball and a 2-2 count, then fouled off a fastball.

Voices were growing hoarse inside Tropicana Field. Wade tried another change-up, and this one stayed about waist-high, over the outside corner. Johnson pulled the pitch down the right-field line. His initial reaction: foul ball.

"The location he threw it -- 99 out of 100 times, I'm going to hit it foul," Johnson said. "When you pull an outside pitch, you usually get that hook spin and it hooks foul."

But this one stayed fair. Inches fair. The sinking liner actually drilled the yellow foul pole. Johnson thrust his right fist in the air and floated around the bases.

"I couldn't believe it," he said.

Back in Ham Lake, "I was screaming at the top of my lungs," Holly said.

On TV, Rays analyst Brian Anderson added, "Dan Johnson may be a Ray for life!"

Elation was fleeting

That may be true in spirit, but Johnson didn't even get another at-bat. Maddon replaced him defensively with Brandon Guyer for the 10th inning, and Evan Longoria won it for Tampa Bay in the 13th, hitting the first walk-off home run to seal a team's postseason berth since Bobby Thomson's Shot Heard Round the World in 1951.

It was Longoria's second homer of the game, and it came just three minutes after the Orioles staged a two-out, ninth-inning rally to stun the Red Sox in Baltimore.

On a baseball night for the ages, Johnson's moment was part of a crowded highlight reel. Besides the Red Sox saga, the Braves completed their own historic collapse that night, allowing the eventual champion Cardinals to claim the NL wild card.

The Rays doused Johnson with champagne and beer, but the next day, he learned he hadn't made their 25-man postseason playoff roster. After losing their first-round series to the Rangers, the Rays waived Johnson in November.

He's still looking for a job.

"Setting the playoff roster is always hard," Friedman said in his e-mail to the Star Tribune. "It takes 35 or 40 guys to get to the postseason and you can only play 25 once you're there. ... The same is true in the offseason. That doesn't erase what Dan did as a Ray, and I know our fans will give him a nice ovation next time he hits here, no matter what uniform he's wearing."

Johnson returned to Ham Lake, where Holly and their two boys -- Kaden (age 7) and Blake (4) -- were waiting with open arms. In mid-December, the family welcomed its newest addition, a baby girl named Ellison.

With an eye beyond his playing days, Johnson began dabbling in a side hobby last winter. He started flipping houses, buying foreclosed homes, overseeing the renovations, and selling them for profit.

"We strip them down to the studs, get rid of the mold, re-do the insulation -- everything," Johnson said. "Basically, people are getting a brand new house. It's such a great feeling because you take something that was gone, that people want out of the neighborhood, and then the neighbors come over and they're thanking you."

It's not unlike Johnson's baseball career. Even during his lowest moments, he's proven capable of something spectacular. He hopes to play at least five more years. The baseball gods haven't always smiled on him, but when he relives the memories of Sept. 28, of a sure foul ball that stayed fair, he knows what it symbolized.

"Yeah," he said, "there's still hope."

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