Home-grown Dave Johnson still pitching for Orioles

April 18, 1995|By BILL TANTON

Who will be the Orioles' Most Valuable Player this season?

In a year when he stands to break Lou Gehrig's record of playing in 2,130 consecutive games, Cal Ripken is the obvious favorite.

But there's another Oriole who, in his own way, might be as valuable to the club as anybody else.

That's Dave Johnson. Technically, he's not really an Oriole. He threw his last pitch for them in '91. But in the hearts of Baltimore baseball fans, home-grown Dave Johnson will always be an Oriole, much as Brooks Robinson is still one.

Johnson is serving the club these days in an important capacity that only he can perform. Not even Cal Ripken can do what he does.

Johnson is a healer at a time when there's a lot of healing to be done.

He makes appearances for the club. Every time he speaks, he makes people feel a little better about baseball.

In the wake of the nearly eight-month players strike, bitterness lingers. Even in sold-out Baltimore people have to be wooed back.

When it comes to that, Dave Johnson is in a class by himself. That was apparent the other day when he was the April luncheon speaker at J. Patrick's.

What sets this mustachioed man from Middle River apart, what makes this former truck driver and volunteer fireman so eminently appealing is this: He's part one of them and part one of us. He's a link between the players and us non-players.

In a way that we non-players will never understand, he knows what it is to be a ballplayer.

Johnson was once American League Player of the Week. Plus, on the final weekend of the '89 season he did something so courageous that only a man who has worn a major-league uniform in the pressure of a pennant race can truly appreciate it.

As Johnson got up to speak at J. Patrick's he immediately revealed his duality.

"When I get introduced by Vince Bagli like that," said the self-effacing Johnson, "I feel like he should be the speaker, not me. I mean, Vince is the dean of the sportscasters. I grew up in Baltimore watching him on TV. I feel like I should be out there listening to him."

Johnson understands the difference between himself and other players.

"Most players," he said, "look at an audience of regular people and they say, 'I'm not like these people.'

"And they're not. They're exceptionally talented athletes. They're major-league ballplayers."

Although Johnson didn't mention it, they're also rich men.

When professional athletes in Baltimore were earning $12,500 a year, they drank at Andy's Lounge in Govans and Kusen's in Waverly. Lots of ordinary people got to know them.

Millionaires -- major-league players have an average salary of $1.2 million -- have never been much for neighborhood bars. It's a law of nature that millionaires like to hang out with other millionaires.

Johnson has long known he's not one of the chosen few, born to be a big-time athlete.

He didn't make the varsity baseball team at Overlea High until his senior year. He weighed 135 pounds when he graduated.

For years he knocked around in baseball, mostly in the minors, hoping to catch on in the big leagues. He pitched briefly with Pittsburgh and Houston. When he finally got to the Orioles, he was 29 years old.

This was in 1989 and he was in Norfolk, playing for Rochester, the Orioles' Triple-A club. The Orioles were in first place but were short of pitchers. General manager Roland Hemond phoned him.

"We have a doubleheader in Boston tomorrow," Hemond said. "You're going to start the second game -- if there is one. The forecast is for rain."

In the morning Johnson caught a plane to Boston and went to the players' gate at Fenway Park.

"I'm a Baltimore player," he told the guard.

"Yeah, sure," the guard said. "The game's been on for an hour and a half. If you were a player you'd have been here three hours ago."

The man called the Orioles' clubhouse and was told that, yes, Johnson was a new player, so Dave was admitted to the visitors' clubhouse. For the first time in his life, he put on the uniform of his hometown team.

Then he waited nervously, wondering if the rain would abate and permit the second game to be played.

It did. The first batter he faced was Wade Boggs. He struck him out.

What followed is part of modern Oriole legend. Johnson won four of five starts. He pitched three complete games in a row. He was named AL Player of the Week.

On the next to last day of the season, with the Orioles and Toronto fighting for first place at SkyDome, Pete Harnisch was to have pitched but stepped on a nail and couldn't play.

Johnson was sent out to start the biggest game of the year. He went into the eighth inning giving up only two hits. When he walked the first batter, manager Frank Robinson pulled him. The Orioles lost the game and the division title.

"I feel fortunate," Johnson was saying at J. Patrick's, "to have had the opportunity to live a dream."

In the audience, retired FBI agent Herb Reisig said: "It's a Cinderella story."

Johnson said several clubs called him last winter when they were forming replacement teams. He turned them down.

"It wasn't even a tough decision," he said. "I did reap the benefits of the players association. It irritated me that any player would go back and be a replacement player after the benefits the players association got for everybody over the last 10 years."

No matter how well the Orioles do on the field this year, they're going to need some major fence-rebuilding with their fans.

The more often Dave Johnson goes out, the better the job will be done.

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