Orioles' Johnson, a nowhere man, waits his turn

John Eisenberg

July 20, 1991|By John Eisenberg

Dave Johnson sat in the dugout watching his ghost pitch for the Orioles last night. The apparition was Roy Smith, a 29-year-old who doesn't throw fast or devilishly -- "if he was an 18-year-old kid, he probably would not get signed," manager John Oates said -- but keeps throwing strikes without making many mistakes and, bless him, has this knack for keeping the score close and pitching into the seventh inning.

Smith lasted into the eighth last night against the Mariners, giving up one run and leaving with the Orioles up three. It was another chapter in one of the few pleasant surprises the Orioles have engendered in 1991, and Johnson was up with everyone else to shake Smith's hand. But there was a caveat mixed into the celebration for Johnson, for another night had passed

without a crack opening in the rotation.

Johnson is the Orioles' nowhere man these days. He used to be a folk hero in this town, and maybe he will be again, but right now he doesn't have a place on the team and he finds himself awake at night worrying that the lifeline of his career suddenly is fluttering, that the Orioles might forget about him and he'll wind up just going away, like a piece of green, green grass that's been mowed.

Maybe that's just paranoia striking deep, but it's impossible to feel otherwise when you grow up in the minors watching scouts turn off their radar guns when your name is announced, and when you're 31 and you've won just 18 games in the majors and there are other people out there doing your job now and all these baseball card-to-bes at Rochester and Hagerstown setting the scouts' hearts atwitter.

"Do I worry that my career might be ending, that I might never get another shot in the major leagues? Yes, every day," Johnson said last night. The Orioles say it's only a matter of time before he's back in the rotation -- "when the need is there," Oates said -- but nothing is more worthless in baseball than a vague notion, so such consoling talk doesn't ease his fretting. Or his frustration.

What happened was that Johnson led the team with 13 wins in 1990, but got hit hard early this season and lost his spot after four starts -- a bit of a quick hook -- then pulled a groin muscle and spent two months rehabbing. Now he is ready and healthy and his arm is fresh, but there isn't a place for him in the rotation. So he sits and watches his ghost and the other Orioles starters go out there every five days, and he wonders what's happening.

He isn't happy. That's obvious. His argument is that he deserves a better chance this year after winning 13 games last year. The manager does not disagree. "I can see his side; I don't blame him for being upset," Oates said. But what options does the club have? Their five current starters have been strikingly similar, sometimes very effective, sometimes gone by the third inning. Can you fairly choose one to pull out of the rotation?

"It would be hard for me to make a case for [taking] one of them [out] over any of the others," Oates said. "They've pitched well at times, but haven't always been consistent. Dave says, 'Why don't I deserve a chance to be inconsistent?' He's stuck on the outside, and it's tough. We've talked about it a couple of times. He's upset. All I can say is somewhere down the road there's going to be a place."

It's a little unfair and more than a little unlucky, and very much a tricky business. The other starters are Johnson's friends and teammates, and he doesn't wish evil on them. He can't help investing with a smile into Smith's surprising season -- "It's beautiful, isn't it?" -- for they're brothers in the guts-only club, whose membership leaves batters walking away from losses wishing they had another chance.

But hey, let's face it, Johnson's career is on the line. "My point is that in this game you earn something with your performance," Johnson said, "and I think with the season I had last year I at least earned a chance to pitch through some bumps and bruises this year. Isn't that fair?"

It is, but the difficult truth is that it has always been this way for Johnson, that he has always needed two steps to get as far as others get with one. That's what happens when you aren't anointed a prospect at 20, when you get stuck at Triple-A for almost four years, when your talent isn't that evident, your

fastball not that fast, your curve not a big bender.

"My strength starts right here," Johnson said, thumping his heart, "and I put it to use with the physical gifts I have. I'm not the kind of pitcher who should be judged over four starts. I'm the kind who needs to keep going out there, and when the season is over you look up and I've done as well as anyone at getting the club into the seventh inning. I did it last year. I can do it now. I can help this team."

He is right when he says he deserves a better chance, and, in the end, it probably will come one of these days, for honestly, it's not as if the Orioles' starters are building any monuments. Yet there are no guarantees, and no vacancies right now, and as each day passes with him in limbo, his chances of making a mark diminishes. His contract is up and he worries about taking a pay cut and starting over again next spring, and it's enough to make him pound the wall. But what to do?

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