by Adam Sobsey
DBAP/ DURHAM—Makes perfect sense that Dan Johnson came back to Durham Bulls Athletic Park and the Bulls scored a baker's dozen runs and drubbed Charlotte, 13-5. The man had a season of massive, almost unmatched run-producing power as a Bull in 2010. This was one of those games about which the less said the better, really, but to get the big stuff in: 18 hits, 15 of them singles. Brandon Guyer hit his second home run. Coupla doubles (Leslie Anderson and Juan Miranda, who got his first three hits of the year).
But mainly, singles, and lots of them, and lots of them hit hard. The vogue for the stat known as BABIP has a lot going for it, but one thing that sometimes interferes with its unblinking, luck-based objectivity is that if you keep hitting the ball hard you are going to overcome the coin-flip logic of balls put in play. The Bulls hit a lot of balls hard last night, and it might as well be added that two of the Knights' infielders' absurd five errors—including four by shortstop Ozzie Martinez (I hope he wasn't named after the other Ozzie)—were on well-smacked grounders. Hustling down the line, the Bulls put pressure on fielders to make plays, and the Knights muffed a lot of them. Still, 11 of the Bulls' 13 runs were earned. The errors, while comically copious, didn't really matter all that much.
What mattered was the return of Dan Johnson. Some stuff first about Matt Torra, the Bulls' starter, and then onto the Tampa Bay Ray whose name and deed shall endure forever—or until the Rays move out of the Trop. Whichever comes first.
Matt Torra, making his first start of the year, looked rusty to me. He kept leaving his modest fastball up in the zone. The first batter of the game, Tyler Kuhn, hit a rocket to deep center field that Kyle Hudson hauled in for the first out. In the first inning, the Knights swung at 11 of Torra's 19 pitches. That's a very high rate, which suggests that everything was too inviting to hit. Of those 11 swings, none were misses—and the Knights hit all 11 balls in the air. Torra's fastball tops out at 90 miles an hour. He is a finesse pitcher whose best pitch is his changeup. He has to keep everything down in order to succeed, unlike power pitchers, who can get away with high hard stuff. He simply had trouble doing that last night.
Torra seemed to recover in the second inning, getting a couple of groundball outs, including an inning-ending double play after a Hector Gimenez single. (Gimenez played in 43 games for the Bulls in 2008.) He pitched around a two-out triple by Kuhn in the third, escaped a bases-loaded, no-out jam in the fourth with just one run scoring—including his only strikeout—and was hurt in the fifth inning by a pair of fielding errors, which led to two unearned runs (Dallas McPherson's second resounding double of the game accounted for one of them).
Torra had, to that point, thrown 78 pitches through five innings. He can certainly go deeper than that, but after he had to waste all those extra pitches to see himself through trouble created by his fielders, I thought it might be wise to take him out after that. It was his first start of the season after a long layoff during which he probably hadn't pitched against live competition in perhaps a fortnight or more. The effort and concentration required to pitch around fielding errors must be much higher than pitching out of your own trouble—you made good pitches, got good results, but the outcome foiled you. Torra had not really been sharp all night, getting by on guile and guts rather than command.
But he came out for the sixth and Gimenez and Jordan Danks both hit long solo homers. After Ozzie Martinez lined out hard to left-center field, Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo replaced Torra with Cesar Ramos.
Torra said he felt fine, and that dealing with the fifth-inning fumbles of his fielders didn't bother him. He said he simply missed spots. Fair enough. Torra was the Bulls' best starting pitcher down the stretch last season, posting a 1.94 ERA over his last six starts, winning five of them. I'm inclined to grant him some time to find his rhythm.
Cesar Ramos threw nine straight balls out of the strike zone to open the seventh inning. At that point, it was 10-5, Durham, but now the Knights had two men aboard and Conor Jackson, Dan Johnson and Gimenez coming up. It could have gotten dicey in a hurry. Credit Ramos for striking out Jackson looking (at pitches that were quite hittable), getting Johnson to hit a weak groundout, and popping up Gimenez with a curve ball to strand the runners. Romulo Sanchez the Bailiff and Who Is John Gaub (There, I'm a book critic) cleaned up from there, and the Bulls added three more runs in the eighth thanks largely to errors three and four by OzMart. (OK if I call him that?)
Well, Dan Johnson! I would love to be able to tell you that he made a triumphant and/or tearful return to the DBAP, where he played for parts of three seasons. It would have been fitting for him to drill a homer or two into the right-field seats, and exchange warm salutes with Charlie Montoyo. But instead, Johnson got lost in the corridor trying to find the visitors' clubhouse, which he had never set foot inside, went a pedestrian 1-4 with an opposite-field single, and teased his new teammates in the Knights' clubhouse when they told him they were going out after the game to Tobacco Road Cafe, which he could not abide. I recommended Whiskey, but they were pretty hell-bent on Tobacco Road. I guess they can't get enough of the DBAP, which Tobacco Road Cafe overlooks.
Anyway, the thing I was most surprised, and pleased, to discover, was how relaxed Johnson seemed. Last year was a terrible trial for him. A lot of people, including me, were skeptical that the hit-by-pitch hand injury he suffered in April was really what was wrong him all season long, but last night Johnson showed us the hand, and you know what? The pinkie is still disfigured and the back of the hand is still a little swollen. He told us that doctors said it could be two years before it completely heals.
Because of the injury, Johnson said, "[my stance] was closed off and [I was] just poking the ball around last year. I wasn't swinging."
Now, Johnson is known sometimes to blame circumstances beyond his control for his disappointments and shortfalls (and he lamented another one last night). He tends to portray himself as mostly unlucky—"If I play for another 30 years I could catch a break," he joked, but not entirely jokingly—which I have always thought is a way of inviting more bad luck in order to keep the demands of success at bay, all the while talking the talk about wanting it to find you. It isn't laziness as much as it is diffidence. You want to earn your success, but you aren't sure you're built for it, and so you don't quite step up and into the place where success is. You get close, then shy away. You content yourself with achievement that goes unnoticed.
Perhaps that judgment is a bit harsh, and it may not quite describe Johnson—who, after all, hit one of the most important home runs in recent baseball memory—but when you've been laboring in Triple-A for three seasons, once you've finally outpaced that level and earned a big-league opportunity (and the paycheck attached to it), as Johnson did with his stupendous 2010 season in Durham, you have to seize it. And you have to seize it quickly. If you don't, some other guy who does what you do, hovering in your shadow—someone like Casey Kotchman, a sort of hollow replica of you—is waiting to pounce. When Johnson couldn't produce early in 2011, busted hand or no, someone had to do it; and Kotchman, who had originally been given Johnson's role in Durham (with a healthy salary of $750,000, it should be noted, almost as much as Johnson's), did not miss his chance. Kotchman had his best year since 2007, thereby marooning Johnson in Durham after his early-May demotion from Tampa.
Johnson is, in my opinion, a more valuable baseball player at his best than Kotchman is. But that doesn't matter. What matters is who can sustain his best long enough to earn another major-league contract, and another, and another. Kotchman is making $3 million this year to play for the Cleveland Indians. Johnson is making less than $100,000 (I presume) to play home games in Fort Mill, S.C.
He did not sound at all bitter about the Rays. "They needed one swing out of me," he said, equably, and he was thrilled to have provided it. Informed that the seat beyond the right field wall at Tropicana Field where his now-legendary home run landed has been painted white in his honor, Johnson simply thought that was really cool. He knows that he is a part of history.
And what of his future? An off-season article about him mentioned that Johnson has taken to flipping houses, and I asked him if he started doing that sideline work because he feared that his hand wouldn't heal enough to allow him to play baseball much longer. Nope—Johnson had actually started doing it the year before, simply because he liked it. He had an acquaintance who wanted to start a contracting and rebuilding business but lacked the capital to support his skills. Johnson had some of the capital and wanted to learn the skills—he got hooked on those home-renovation shows on TV—and Tru Renovations LLC was born. The hands that hit the most famous home run in Tampa Bay history now also apply joint compound in winter. (I hoped this was his work, but the guy in that video ain't DanJo. Johnson is pretty much the only baseball player left on earth who has no Twitter account—he showed less than no interest in it last year—so it's no surprise that his company doesn't seem to exist on the internet. To be fair, it's brand new. A web site is a secondary concern.)
It was tempting to think that Johnson seemed happier, looser and more relaxed last night not only because he's no longer feeling crummy about a busted left hand and not living up to a $1 million contact and the whole distressing 2011 season, or about hitting the hide off the ball in the vacuum of Durham for four months in 2010 before finally getting a callup to the major leagues, or about the miserable year he spent playing Japan in 2009. It's cheering to think that it's also because he gets to do something he enjoys when he isn't consumed with baseball. As the most unjustly overlooked pop musician of the last three decades wrote, "Everybody needs their own big project / Time that's set aside for something stress-free."
Meanwhile, there isn't really any pressure on him in his new job with Charlotte. The White Sox probably weren't expecting him to open the season on the big-league roster when they signed him. He's mostly insurance in case Adam Dunn, who had a truly awful season in 2011, continues to be devoured by termites this year. (I was surprised to discover that Johnson and Dunn are almost the same age, born three months apart in 1979.)
Without anything to lose, really, it's no wonder that Johnson seemed at ease and perfectly content to chat with his old media contingent. He cracked jokes, ribbed teammates, held forth in the inimitable Johnsonian way, which is I suppose not entirely unrelated to that of his more famous pontificating namesake, Dr. Johnson—who did, after all, produce a periodical called The Rambler. I can't help wishing that he spends the whole year in Charlotte so we can check in with him periodically; but mostly, I wish for the Great Pumpkin that he gets called up to the big patch and sticks a while. The houses can wait to be flipped, and I suspect Johnson has a few more big-time big-league swings left in him.
Side note: The Bulls deployed a shift against Johnson last night, and he hit into it twice. He also lined an opposite-field single, and flied out to left as well. Charlie Montoyo, after joking in advance of the Knights' arrival that there was no need to scout Johnson since almost every pitcher on the team knew him, allowed that "we have a plan." We saw it last night.
A final note before I sign off. I observed yesterday that this particular Durham Bulls team already seems to be cohering into a unit, just five games into the season. Nothing concrete, really, just a feel, a sense. After last night's game, I spent some time talking to the friendly and forthcoming Kyle Hudson, who raved about the positive energy of the Bulls' clubhouse. Hudson was acquired by the Rays just before the season started, basically in order to patch holes (speaking of joint compound) in the organization's upper-level outfield depth. He knew few of the current players from his previous travels in the minor leagues, but he was quickly welcomed to the fold.
Hudson arrived in Durham on Tuesday, April 3, getting to the DBAP just in time to catch the end of the team's first practice, and I watched more than one Bull go up and introduce himself. That may seem like nothing special, but Hudson told me that in many other organizations the players keep to themselves and aren't much interested in bonding with their minor-league teammates. It seems no accident to me that Hudson's locker is right next to Will Rhymes's: two undersized, shaggy-haired scrappers fighting the Triple-A fight together.
One never wants to make too much of team chemistry in Class AAA baseball. Players come and go on an almost daily basis, a fair number of them don't want to be at this level at all, and they occupy wildly divergent career strata. There is Shawn O'Malley, a 24-year-old non-prospect who has never reached this level before (he's got a .940 OPS through his first four games, FYI); two Cuban defectors with complicated histories, one something of a bust and the other a major-league starting job-loser last year; repeaters like Nevin Ashley and Brandon Guyer, seeking those last few skills that will get them to the majors; top prospects like Alex Cobb, who is just refining his game and biding his time; journeymen like Jesus Feliciano and Jeff Salazar.
That's true every year, of course, but for whatever reason this particular 2012 team seems like just that: a team. It'll be interesting to see how, or if, they stay that way through what is sure to be, once again, the disbanding, disjointing action of a Triple-A season.
Staff ace Alex Cobb takes the mound tonight at 7:05 p.m. at the DBAP, opposed by Charlotte's Eric Stults. I'm not covering the game tonight, so I will get my obligatory Mask reference out of the way now. (Actually, Eric Stoltz has almost, sorta cropped up here before.)
Looking ahead, don't forget that Wednesday's game, the last of the season-opening homestand before the Bulls go on a 14-game (?!) road trip, starts at 11:05 a.m. Start practicing your most pitiful, sniffling voice now so you can call in sick to work. The game will end at around 1:30, and when you arrive at the office, heroically, at 2:00, body aching, popping meds and grinding out a productive afternoon, you'll be greeted with wonder and respect. Just like Dan Johnson.