Page 2 of 2 Previous

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

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

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."

  • get related content delivered to your inbox

  • manage my email subscriptions

ADVERTISEMENT

Cleveland 26 FINAL
Atlanta 24
Tennessee 24 FINAL
Philadelphia 43
Detroit 9 FINAL
New England 34
Green Bay 24 FINAL
Minnesota 21
Jacksonville 3 FINAL
Indianapolis 23
Cincinnati 22 FINAL
Houston 13
Tampa Bay 13 FINAL
Chicago 21
Arizona 3 FINAL
Seattle 19
St. Louis 24 FINAL
San Diego 27
Miami 36 FINAL
Denver 39
Washington 13 FINAL
San Francisco 17
Dallas 31 FINAL
NY Giants 28
NY Jets 11/24/14 6:00 PM
Buffalo
Baltimore 11/24/14 7:30 PM
New Orleans
Chicago 11/27/14 11:30 AM
Detroit
Philadelphia 11/27/14 3:30 PM
Dallas
Seattle 11/27/14 7:30 PM
San Francisco
LA Clippers 91 FINAL
Memphis 107
Portland 94 FINAL
Boston 88
Charlotte 93 FINAL
Miami 94
Golden State 91 FINAL
Oklahoma City 86
Denver 86 1st OT
LA Lakers 86
St. Louis 4 FINAL
Winnipeg 2
Montreal 0 FINAL
NY Rangers 5
Arizona 1 FINAL
Anaheim 2
Chicago 1 3rd Prd :43
Vancouver 4
Coll of Charleston 61 FINAL
George Mason 60
Massachusetts 75 FINAL
Florida State 69
Youngstown St 76 FINAL
UNC Greensboro 67
Wofford 64 FINAL
Sam Houston St 53
Ark-Pine Bluff 43 FINAL
Central Mich 75
Southern Ill 67 FINAL
Ill-Chicago 60
Drexel 61 FINAL
Cornell 59
American Univ 51 FINAL
Morehead State 46
CS-Northridge 88 FINAL
Ark-Little Rock 94
Bethune-Cookman 65 FINAL
Central Conn St 60
Columbia 54 FINAL
Lehigh 44
Texas A&M 64 FINAL
New Mexico 51
TX A&M-CC 62 FINAL
Saint Louis 56
Merchant Marine 54 FINAL
Stony Brook 89
South Dakota 72 FINAL
Fairfield 80
Longwood 48 FINAL
Eastern Mich 79
Providence 75 FINAL
Notre Dame 74
Jackson State 50 FINAL
UAB 58
Coppin State 54 FINAL
Denver 80
Northwestern St 68 FINAL
Oklahoma 90
Catawba 52 FINAL
Radford 88
Newman 57 FINAL
Wichita State 105
Yale 66 FINAL
Kent State 59
St Katherine 49 FINAL
UC Riverside 102
NC Central 45 FINAL
Creighton 65
South Florida 65 FINAL
NC State 68
USC 61 FINAL
Penn State 63
Nichols College 70 FINAL
Holy Cross 101
Dayton 65 FINAL
Boston College 53
Wagner 71 FINAL
Hofstra 93
Towson 79 FINAL
Monmouth 75
NC A&T 50 FINAL
Bradley 58
Eastern Ill 49 FINAL
Cincinnati 54
Fla Atlantic 61 FINAL
Georgia 74
Presbyterian 48 FINAL
Louisiana Tech 76
St Francis-NY 73 FINAL
Rutgers 76
UMKC 55 FINAL
Samford 64
Binghamton 68 FINAL
Navy 70
USC Upstate 69 FINAL
UCF 76
UMass Lowell 64 FINAL
Fordham 57
Montana State 28 FINAL
Kentucky 86
Iona 78 FINAL
North Texas 58
Gardner-Webb 67 FINAL
Seton Hall 85
Akron 68 FINAL
South Carolina 63
Hood College 51 FINAL
Howard 78
Sacred Heart 48 FINAL
Ohio State 106
Tennessee St 46 FINAL
Vanderbilt 78
Connecticut 68 FINAL
West Virginia 78
Delaware 52 FINAL
CS-Bakersfield 70
Mercer 62 FINAL
Colorado State 75
SD Christian 60 FINAL
Loyola Marymount 82
Northern Ariz 74 FINAL
Ole Miss 80
Manhattan 51 FINAL
Northeastern 65
Pacific 69 FINAL
Washington 76
Miami-Florida 77 FINAL
Charlotte 58
UC Irvine 69 FINAL
St Marys-CA 72
Old Dominion 45 FINAL
Illinois State 64
Long Beach State 63 FINAL
UCLA 77
Montana 39 2nd Half 11:47
Seattle 47
Char Southern 9 FINAL
(8) Georgia 55
South Alabama 12 FINAL
So Carolina 37
Rutgers 3 FINAL
(10) Michigan State 45
(22) Minnesota 28 FINAL
Nebraska 24
Northwestern 38 FINAL
Purdue 14
(19) Marshall 23 FINAL
UAB 18
Kansas 7 FINAL
(20) Oklahoma 44
Indiana 27 FINAL
(7) Ohio State 42
Penn State 14 FINAL
Illinois 16
(16) Eastern Ky 3 FINAL
Florida 52
TX-San Antonio 7 FINAL
Western Ky 45
SMU 7 FINAL
UCF 53
Tulsa 28 FINAL
Houston 38
Virginia Tech 3 FINAL
Wake Forest 6
Washington St 31 FINAL
(13) Arizona State 52
Louisiana Tech 27 FINAL
Old Dominion 30
Western Mich 32 FINAL
Central Mich 20
New Mexico 20 FINAL
(21) Colorado State 58
Eastern Mich 30 FINAL
Ball State 45
Appalachian St 35 FINAL
Louisiana 16
(12) Arizona 42 FINAL
Utah 10
FIU 14 FINAL
North Texas 17
(18) Ole Miss 0 FINAL
Arkansas 30
(24) Louisville 31 FINAL
Notre Dame 28
Maryland 23 FINAL
Michigan 16
Texas Tech 34 FINAL
Iowa State 31
(14) Wisconsin 26 FINAL
Iowa 24
Syracuse 7 FINAL
Pittsburgh 30
Boston College 17 FINAL
(1) Florida State 20
Georgia State 0 FINAL
(23) Clemson 28
Tulane 6 FINAL
East Carolina 34
Stanford 38 FINAL
California 17
Western Carolina 14 FINAL
(2) Alabama 48
ULM 30 FINAL
New Mexico St 17
So Florida 20 FINAL
Memphis 31
Colorado 10 FINAL
(3) Oregon 44
Fla Atlantic 34 FINAL
Middle Tennessee 35
Samford 7 FINAL
(15) Auburn 31
Miami-Florida 13 FINAL
Virginia 30
Vanderbilt 0 FINAL
(4) Miss State 51
(17) Missouri 29 FINAL
Tennessee 21
Oklahoma State 28 FINAL
(5) Baylor 49
USC 20 FINAL
(9) UCLA 38
Cincinnati 41 FINAL
Connecticut 0
(25) Boise State 63 FINAL
Wyoming 14
Oregon State 13 FINAL
Washington 37
Fresno State 40 FINAL
Nevada 20
UNLV 35 FINAL
Hawaii 37
Ohio U 11/25/14 6:00 PM
Miami-Ohio
LSU 11/27/14 6:30 PM
Texas A&M
(6) TCU 11/27/14 6:30 PM
Texas
Northern Ill 11/28/14 10:00 AM
Western Mich
Nebraska 11/28/14 11:00 AM
Iowa
Western Ky 11/28/14 11:00 AM
(19) Marshall
UCF 11/28/14 11:00 AM
So Florida
Houston 11/28/14 11:00 AM
SMU
Akron 11/28/14 12:00 PM
Kent State
Ball State 11/28/14 12:00 PM
Bowling Green
Buffalo 11/28/14 12:00 PM
Massachusetts
Toledo 11/28/14 12:00 PM
Eastern Mich
Arkansas 11/28/14 1:30 PM
(17) Missouri
Navy 11/28/14 2:00 PM
South Alabama
(13) Arizona State 11/28/14 2:30 PM
(12) Arizona
Stanford 11/28/14 2:30 PM
(9) UCLA
(21) Colorado State 11/28/14 2:30 PM
Air Force
Virginia 11/28/14 7:00 PM
Virginia Tech
East Carolina 11/28/14 7:30 PM
Tulsa
North Texas 11/29/14 11:00 AM
TX-San Antonio
Old Dominion 11/29/14 11:00 AM
Fla Atlantic
(16) Georgia Tech 11/29/14 11:00 AM
(8) Georgia
Kentucky 11/29/14 11:00 AM
(24) Louisville
So Carolina 11/29/14 11:00 AM
(23) Clemson
West Virginia 11/29/14 11:00 AM
Iowa State
Rice 11/29/14 11:00 AM
Louisiana Tech
Michigan 11/29/14 11:00 AM
(7) Ohio State
Purdue 11/29/14 11:00 AM
Indiana
Illinois 11/29/14 11:00 AM
Northwestern
Cincinnati 11/29/14 11:00 AM
Temple
NC State 11/29/14 11:30 AM
North Carolina
Syracuse 11/29/14 11:30 AM
Boston College
Louisiana 11/29/14 11:30 AM
Troy
Utah 11/29/14 12:00 PM
Colorado
Texas State 11/29/14 1:00 PM
Georgia State
Idaho 11/29/14 1:00 PM
Appalachian St
Wyoming 11/29/14 2:00 PM
New Mexico
New Mexico St 11/29/14 2:00 PM
Arkansas State
UAB 11/29/14 2:30 PM
Southern Miss
(4) Miss State 11/29/14 2:30 PM
(18) Ole Miss
Notre Dame 11/29/14 2:30 PM
USC
(10) Michigan State 11/29/14 2:30 PM
Penn State
(22) Minnesota 11/29/14 2:30 PM
(14) Wisconsin
(5) Baylor 11/29/14 2:30 PM
Texas Tech
Florida 11/29/14 2:30 PM
(1) Florida State
Rutgers 11/29/14 2:30 PM
Maryland
San Jose St 11/29/14 2:30 PM
San Diego St
Tennessee 11/29/14 3:00 PM
Vanderbilt
Kansas 11/29/14 3:00 PM
(11) Kansas State
Connecticut 11/29/14 3:00 PM
Memphis
BYU 11/29/14 3:30 PM
California
ULM 11/29/14 5:00 PM
Ga Southern
Middle Tennessee 11/29/14 6:00 PM
Texas-El Paso
Hawaii 11/29/14 6:00 PM
Fresno State
Wake Forest 11/29/14 6:00 PM
Duke
Pittsburgh 11/29/14 6:00 PM
Miami-Florida
(15) Auburn 11/29/14 6:45 PM
(2) Alabama
(3) Oregon 11/29/14 7:00 PM
Oregon State
Utah State 11/29/14 9:15 PM
(25) Boise State
Washington 11/29/14 9:30 PM
Washington St
Nevada 11/29/14 9:30 PM
UNLV
New England 2 FINAL
Red Bull New York 1
Seattle 0 FINAL
Los Angeles 1
Montreal 24 FINAL
Hamilton 40
Edmonton 18 FINAL
Calgary 43
Alabama 58 FINAL
Temple 51
Massachusetts 46 FINAL
Florida State 74
Creighton 60 FINAL
(1) Connecticut 96
Bryant 79 FINAL
Boston College 90
Robert Morris 84 FINAL
UMBC 60
Sacred Heart 59 FINAL
Maine 58
Virginia Tech 72 FINAL
Providence 69
Coll of Charleston 61 FINAL
George Mason 71
Hartford 59 FINAL
Lafayette 74
William & Mary 80 FINAL
High Point 87
Western Ill 88 FINAL
Florida Atlantic 90
Pittsburgh 64 FINAL
James Madison 80
Toledo 48 FINAL
(24) Purdue 66
Western Mich 47 FINAL
Michigan 74
Cleveland State 73 FINAL
FIU 65
San Diego State 38 FINAL
(2) South Carolina 89
Mount St Marys 62 FINAL
Davidson 67
IUPUI 45 FINAL
(15) Michigan State 64
Illinois State 49 FINAL
Colorado State 70
Incarnate Word 49 FINAL
Indiana 85
Cincinnati 54 FINAL
Iowa State 85
Furman 69 FINAL
Clemson 79
VA Commonwealth 86 FINAL
Ohio State 96
Marquette 51 FINAL
(7) Duke 83
Bethune-Cookman 42 FINAL
East Carolina 71
Coppin State 54 FINAL
Wake Forest 65
(24) Georgia 64 FINAL
Georgia Tech 57
Ball State 56 FINAL
(12) Louisville 69
Auburn 51 FINAL
Virginia 66
Utah 43 FINAL
(16) Nebraska 66
Minnesota 68 FINAL
Memphis 62
Georgetown 42 FINAL
Kansas 55
Northwestern St 30 FINAL
Arkansas 78
TX-San Antonio 72 FINAL
Lamar 40
Southern Miss 55 FINAL
McNeese State 57
Air Force 51 FINAL
SIU-Edwardsville 86
IUPU-Ft Wayne 73 FINAL
USC Upstate 85
Morgan State 57 FINAL
Texas Tech 65
Western Ky 77 FINAL
Miss State 88
Southern U 42 FINAL
Illinois 62
Eastern Illinois 59 FINAL
North Texas 57
Alabama State 61 FINAL
South Alabama 64
Wisconsin 77 FINAL
Drake 89
Seattle 61 FINAL
Montana State 74
UC Santa Barbara 49 FINAL
Northern Ariz 67
Hofstra 64 FINAL
Norfolk State 47
Iona 49 FINAL
Pacific 64
Middle Tennessee 71 FINAL
Ole Miss 65
Portland 67 FINAL
Cal Poly 76
(10) Texas 75 FINAL
UCLA 65
Fresno State 50 FINAL
USC 68
Ave Maria 54 FINAL
Fla Gulf Coast 102
Holy Cross 29 FINAL
(3) Notre Dame 104
Chicago State 40 FINAL
Oakland 66
(11) North Carolina 76 FINAL
Oregon 59
Harvard 87 FINAL
Quinnipiac 83
Princeton 63 FINAL
American Univ 56
Missouri 64 2nd Half 4:19
(14) California 70
Yale 44 2nd Half 5:28
Washington 72
UNLV 10:59 PM
Hawaii
Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

 
Close