Holy Toledo! Dave Johnson's Essex dues earn him Triple-A shot

June 26, 1992|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,Staff Writer

Fewer than three years earlier, Dave Johnson was in Toronto's SkyDome starting the game that decided the American League Eastern Division title.

A replacement for injured Pete Harnisch, Johnson was marvelous that day, taking a 3-1 lead into the eighth inning before being relieved. Toronto eventually won the game against the Orioles bullpen and clinched the division to end the "Why Not?" season.

But on Wednesday night at Hannah More Park in Reisterstown, he was pitching for the Essex Brewers, a local unlimited team in the Baltimore-Harford League whose only resemblance to the major-league Brewers were their uniforms.

No glitter. Few spectators. Heavy thunderstorm warnings. A long, long way from the multimillion-dollar baseball palace in Canada.

The wind whipped up, whirling the loose dust into Johnson's eyes. The players hurried to allow him to pitch a half-inning

before a storm, laced with nasty lightning, chased all from the field.

But Johnson was unfazed. He was chatting with everyone and saying, "Holy Toledo." He knew this game was a simple exercise, not an audition. Joe Klein, the Tigers vice president for scouting, told him earlier in the day that the Tigers were signing him to pitch for their Triple-A Toledo farm club. The next step was The Show.

"Joe wanted me to go out and throw so he could see me," said Johnson. "Instead of just saying 'I'm healthy' on the phone, that sort of made it official. Fortunately, I was able to go through a couple of hitters for him."

Johnson has been biding his time, hoping for a call since being released by the California Angels' organization May 28, just when he felt he had recovered from tendinitis in his right shoulder.

He pitched four times for the Essex Brewers, a team he was invited to join by a friend, Ken Keller. He permitted one run on a "seeing-eye" single to what he described as "mostly a collection of guys who have played American Legion ball or for local colleges, guys playing mostly for fun."

He said the experience underscored the huge difference between amateur ball and the majors.

"In the big leagues, you can set up hitters," he said. "But here they wait for one pitch. Pitching is mental and they make it tough."

Nothing has really changed with Johnson, who was released last November by the Orioles.

"Davey won't light up you with his stuff or his velocity," said Klein. "But if you won on heart alone, he'd be a Hall of Famer. He happens to be in the right spot at the right time. Now it's up to him."

Johnson said he had to convince people he was healthy. He auditioned for the Montreal organization and said he reached 85 mph on the radar gun.

"Obviously, my arm strength is back," he said.

So, now the Middle River native has another chance at age 32. With expansion by two more teams coming next season, there will be even more opportunity.

For the short term, he craves playing at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

"The Tigers come back there the first week of August," he said. "Hopefully, I'll throw well enough at Toledo to get the call. I'd love to be back home in the bigs."

Holy Baltimore. He might just make it.

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