Former Blaine High School standout Dan Johnson has been a hot-hitting youngster for Oakland. He’s been a late-inning hero for Tampa Bay. He’s been a lot of other things along the way, playing for a total of six MLB teams in 10 seasons — most recently St. Louis in 2015.
But it would be hard to top the encore the 37-year-old Johnson is attempting to craft. After a major league career spent mostly as a first baseman, designated hitter and lefthanded pinch-hitter, Johnson is with the St. Paul Saints.
The catch: He’s there as a starting pitcher who specializes in the game’s most unusual pitch — the knuckleball — as he attempts to work his way back to the majors. Lest you think this is some sideshow that merely allows a recognized name to keep playing while living with his wife and four kids in suburban Ham Lake, try again.
Better yet: Try hitting Johnson’s knuckleball. American Association batters have been having a wicked time doing just that. He has made six starts. After mixed results in his first three, Johnson has given up a total of one run in his past three outings over 18⅔ innings. He has done it while throwing his knuckleball, by his estimation, 85 to 90 percent of the time.
“The guys in the bullpen say, ‘You look like a pitcher now,’ ” Johnson said. “I’m getting in the repetitions and starting to feel comfortable with it.”
Well, as comfortable as you can feel while throwing an unpredictable pitch. Johnson uses a two-fingered grip without seams to throw a knuckler his dad called the “dancing dazzler” back in youth baseball.
Johnson messed around with the pitch over the years, acquiring enough of a reputation that more than one major league pitching coach has asked him to throw a bullpen session. And more than one has told him he should take pitching seriously.
With his other options dwindling — Johnson hasn’t had more than 100 MLB plate appearances in a season since 2010 — he decided now was the time. He started the season in the Atlantic League, but stints in Bridgeport and Long Island had him playing too often at first base and not pitching enough. He talked to Saints manager George Tsamis, who said he would give him a chance.
“I’m not a fan of the knuckleball. I never have been,” Tsamis said. “But this guy, the way he’s pitched, he’s changing my mind.”
Johnson chuckled when he was reminded of Tsamis’ thoughts on the pitch because R.A. Dickey — a Cy Young Award-winning knuckleballer and Johnson’s teammate with Toronto in 2014 — has told him similar stories.
“It’s the hardest thing for a manager to trust,” Johnson said. “But as a pitcher that’s how you have to do it. I have control until I let it go. Then it’s just up to the elements to take care of the rest.”
With the Saints, Johnson has been an emergency fill-in in the field, clubbing a pair of home runs in one game. He said multiple major league organizations are tracking his progress in St. Paul, and he figures if he can offer a unique skill set — a guy who can play a corner infield spot, hit off the bench, log a bunch of innings in relief or even be a spot-starter as a pitcher — there still might be a place for him on a big-league roster.
“I wouldn’t just do this to do it,” Johnson said. “I know what it takes, and I know what I have to do.”