Johnson learns respect won't come from others

March 05, 1991|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff Correspondent

SARASOTA, Fla. -- Dave Johnson has made a career out of being overlooked and underappreciated, but his search for respect has come to an end.

He didn't find it. He just stopped looking for it.

There will always be someone to walk away from home plate sniggering at his so-so fastball. There will always be an opposing manager to claim that Dave Johnson only pitched well enough to win because the other team only hit well enough to lose. There will always be an excuse, because he just looks so beatable.

"When I read about people saying that I should have never beaten them, I love that," Johnson said, "because they obviously haven't figured out how I do it."

He does it with a combination of determination and deception, but he doesn't do it with mirrors. Opposing hitters spend half the time wondering what he's doing in the major leagues and the other half wondering what they're doing in the dugout already.

"There's deception involved in all pitching," manager Frank Robinson said. "Dave Johnson has what you would call an unorthodox delivery. He hides the ball very well and hitters don't get a very good look at it.

"But they're still not giving him credit. They don't make any adjustment because they go away thinking they are definitely going to beat him the next time."

Johnson used that to his advantage last year. He led the Orioles with 13 victories and might have had several more if not for an injury and an ineffective offensive attack. Though he came back to find that Ben McDonald would be the Opening Day starter this year, he dismissed the notion that it was another in a long line of professional slights.

"He has to be the ace," Johnson said, "based on the type of stuff he has and the things he's done. I'd be a fool to say he wasn't.

"The important thing is to be one of the five starters. You get just as many starts as anybody else."

But the Opening Day start traditionally is awarded to the pitcher who is the ace of the staff the year before. McDonald was the ace in the second half, but Johnson was the most successful pitcher overall.

"What difference does it make?" he said. "I would have liked that, but I'd much rather be the Opening Day starter in 1992 than 1991. Since I'm from the area, I'd love to start the first game at the new stadium. The ultimate would be to perform well enough to be in that position.

"But it'll be hard to do, because there'll be an incumbent. Ben is a great pitcher, so I'll have to win a lot of games to beat him out."

Robinson doesn't mind a little friendly competition. He also doesn't mind seeing Johnson push himself to improve on 1990. For that matter, he doesn't mind playing along.

"Tell him to win 25 games and I'll guarantee he can start the first game in the new stadium," Robinson said.

Johnson can handle all this now, but he used to be pretty `D sensitive about his Rodney Dangerfield ("I don't get no respect") image. He got tired of hearing how he had a lot more guts than talent. He got tired of hearing how his fastball was really a change-up. He's probably still tired of it, but he seems to be turning it to his own advantage.

"After my first win two years ago, when [Twins manager] Tom Kelly said something like 'there's no way that guy will be around to face us again,' that really hurt me," Johnson said. "Who's that guy to say? How many games did he play in the major leagues? But now, I don't have to care. Before, it mattered. I wanted somebody to say positive things about me and I wanted somebody else to hear them. Now, it doesn't matter. I've proved them all wrong. I still have to prove it every time out, but I don't have to prove I should have a chance."

It is apparent that his confidence has risen dramatically over the past year. The coaching staff can see it in the way he's throwing the ball this spring. Johnson said it's because of the way he threw it last year.

"I thought I pitched well enough to win 20 games last year," he said. "I won 13 and there were three or four others I could have won and I missed four or five starts. I know it wasn't always pretty, but I proved I could win up here."

It only took about eight years of knocking around the minor leagues to get the chance, but Johnson finally made his determination pay off in a big way. He only had five appearances with the Pittsburgh Pirates to show for six years in that organization. He couldn't even get look from the Houston Astros after a 15-win season at Class AAA in 1988. But he was in the major leagues just months after coming to the Orioles in 1989, and he's still here.

"I didn't quit because I always thought I could do it," he said. "I felt I had worked too hard to give it up. So many people said, 'When are you going to get a real job? You're never going to make it. You're not big enough. You're not good enough.' And I'm talking about my friends."

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