Even as ex-Oriole, Johnson isn't in a moping mood

MIKE LITTWIN

November 22, 1991|By MIKE LITTWIN

If you're wondering what Dave Johnson was doing the day after he was, well, dumped by the Orioles, it definitely was not sitting around the house moping.

Why mope?

A few years ago, if he was sitting around the house, he was sitting compactly, because the house was a trailer, and you don't exactly stretch out in one of those jobs. Let's just say you don't go for the wraparound sofa. But now, he's got a house big enough for Ben McDonald and a couple of gators to stretch out in.

And besides, in the old days, he didn't have the time -- to sit, or mope. That was the era of truckin' Dave Johnson, who drove a big old truck in the off-season to support his habit, which was baseball. And which it still is.

So, the Orioles dumped him. What's a guy to do?

Here's what Dave Johnson did on the day after the Orioles waived him bye-bye: He was out selling the Orioles. Honest to gosh. What he does in the off-season now is to work with the Orioles community relations department. If he's not a natural on the mound -- and he is not -- Johnson is the Roger Clemens of community relations. The town loves him.

It was his job, and though he was a little down, he was out at Samuel F.B. Morse elementary school yesterday in an adopt-a-school program where he helped officiate the swearing-in of some safety patrols and school officers and where you can bet there were some pretty thrilled kids.

"They were great," Johnson said. "The fans here have been great to me and my family. I really like doing this."

He likes it. And maybe someday he'll do it permanently, but that's when Johnson is done with baseball. Although the Orioles are done with him, he's not quite ready to hang 'em up. Heck, he's not near ready. You don't survive in the minor leagues for eight years and then just walk away. You don't live in a trailer and drive a truck so you can stick in the minor leagues when all the odds are against you and then just call it quits at the first piece of bad luck.

"I had a terrible year last year," Johnson was saying yesterday. "But I can still pitch. I was hoping to get a chance to show that here, the same kind of chance that Jeff Ballard and Bobby Milacki got last year. I won 13 games in 1990. I think that proves something."

What does it prove exactly? Some people who watched him thought it proved that he got by on guts and never could figure out how he won 13 games with a below-average fastball for an out pitch. That's what the Orioles must have figured. They saw his earned run average of a year ago -- a gigantic 7.07, the Sears Tower of ERAs, an ERA that casts a shadow -- and said they'd seen enough, just as they'd seen enough of Ballard and Jeff Robinson.

How do you figure they gave him the news? "Dave, we've got the worst pitching staff in baseball, but we still don't need you." That wasn't what they said, but it's what they meant.

But we're going to miss him. This was a hometown guy who was really a hometown guy. He was a guy from Middle River, a guy who could have grown up in your neighborhood. He's as unprepossessing as any athlete ever could be, meaning you can't help but look at him and figure: He's one of us. One of us made it.

That's over now. His feelings are hurt, but he's not bitter. It's baseball, and it's a business as well as a romance. As a guy who's been around, he saw this coming.

But as a guy who wants to be a pitcher, he still believes he has a chance.

"Definitely," he said. "Somebody's going to want me. I know it's easy to sit back and blow your own horn. But I always figured if I wasn't blowing my horn, nobody was. And two years ago, I had a great year. I won 13, and I pitched well enough that I could have 20. There were about eight games that I lost or had a no-decision when I had quality starts. You know, if I'd have won 20 games, I don't think I'd be let go right now."

No, he wouldn't, but do you think Johnson is a 20-game winner? A great guy, yes, but not a a 20-game winner.

And yet, he could be back. Everyone who can play baseball is going to find a way to stick around this year because expansion is coming in 1993, and there will room for all manner of ballplayers, maybe even Johnson, who will then be pushing 34.

"I'm going to keep all my doors open," he said. "I'm healthy. I'm going to pitch this year. It might be in the majors or it might be in the minors. It might be right back here."

Yes, the Orioles left a door open. If Johnson doesn't catch on, he can come to spring training and see what happens. He has been in worse situations. Of course, he has been in better. You need only think back to that October day in Toronto when the season was on the line and Pete Harnisch, the scheduled pitcher, had stepped on a nail, and they called on Dave Johnson to save the '89 season. He pitched great. He pitched wonderfully. He left with a 3-1 lead after walking the leadoff batter in the eighth, and then the game and the season got away.

Johnson's enduring memory of the day?

"That game gave me a chance to come to spring training and make the team," he said.

No romance there. That game gave him a chance to make a living, which is what he wants to continue to do.

"I had a great run here," Johnson said. "The fans were great, and I had a great time. Now, it's time for another page in the book."

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