An ode to Dave Johnson

Dan Rodricks

November 22, 1991|By Dan Rodricks

"The glory and the freshess of a dream . . ."

-- William Wordsworth, from his ode on immortality, 1807

If, after having been cut by the Baltimore Orioles, Dave Johnson needs help finding consolation, he can turn to Wordsworth, who, though an unlikely locker room companion, can comfort any hard-luck baseball player with his intimations on passing glories. Jim Palmer should have read it years ago.

Wordsworth's ode might be a bit grandiose for the fine, good men who sat through the summer at my favorite bar in Govans, necks craned to the overhead TV, grumbling about the Orioles and cursing the terrible pitching staff, which included Dave Johnson in a particularly lousy performance as the struggling artist. They might not associate Johnson with anything poetic. Bear with me, fellas.

L It is not now as it hath been of yore Turn whereso'er I may,

By night or day,The things which I have seen I now can see no more.

Should he have any doubt that most people around Baltimore -- in particular, men between the ages of 25 and 50 -- consider him one of the luckiest and most admirable guys alive, and should he find such consolation no consolation at all, Dave Johnson should seek out the ode Emerson called the greatest intellectual work of its age, and the only ode that provided full literary turn-on (FLT) for the gang in Mrs. Leach's 9th-grade English.

Wordsworth might not have understood what it meant for a pitcher to be released on waivers -- he probably would have been perplexed by the infield fly rule, too -- but Dave Johnson would certainly understand Wordsworth. Especially now. He'll either have to give up his major league career, or begin proving himself all over again.

F: O joy! that in our embers Is something that doth live,

That nature yet remembers

What was so fugitive!

Should his brief career be at end -- hard to believe, given Johnson's determination through eight minor-league years -- he's still the envy of a million guys his age. Johnson made it to the show. And he came from Middle River. And he pitched for the Orioles, even led the team in pitching one season, albeit a hopeless one.

He pitched for the team he grew up with! He pitched in front of his hometown! How many guys get to do that? Sure, Cal had the same luck. But Cal was a natural; by most standards, superhuman. The thing that made the Dave Johnson Story beautiful was that nothing seemed to come easy to him, and people noticed. Johnson had to work hard every step of the way, on every pitch. That made him patron saint to all slugs who, desperately fighting off the doom of mediocrity, scratch and claw and sweat to enjoy even the smallest of personal successes.

So you know what I'm getting at -- the working-man pride, the small kicks derived from doing a job well, the aching satisfaction from a hard day's night. That's how we identified with Dave Johnson. He was a lunch-bucket hero in the age of arrogant, multimillion-dollar free agents who charge kids for autographs. He was what Rick Dempsey used to be, only locally grown, and Baltimore loves locally grown.

Even more, Johnson is envied because he spotted the glory of a dream and went after it. It's a dream that rises up fresh in just about every American boy, hovers seductively in his soul, then disappears, usually by the time he's in high school. It's overly romanticized, yet it's true.

Dave Johnson kept reaching for the dream until he finally grabbed it. He held it in his hand for a while and, in a relatively short time, took it places where most of us slugs will never go. Then, the glory slipped away, like one of his home-run pitches.

Though nothing can bring back the hour Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower

He's one of the finest people I've ever met, with or without a baseball uniform. He's the guy you'd like to see coaching your kids, or running the local volunteer fire company. Dave Johnson is a hero in this town. He'll be remembered for that last weekend in Toronto in '89, for his hard work, for the way he eagerly chased his dream, and wouldn't give up.

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