Johnson flashes O's `sign me' sign

June 19, 1999|By Ken Rosenthal

He's on pace to hit 30 home runs. He's making it difficult for opponents to steal even on vulnerable pitchers. He's not under long-term contract, but he's the one Oriole who should be.

Even Lenny Webster loves Charles Johnson, and it was the acquisition of the four-time Gold Glove catcher last winter that led Webster to request a trade.

Much as Webster knew the arrival of Johnson would reduce his playing time, he admired Johnson both as a player and person, and wanted to be teammates with one of the only other African-American catchers in the game.

Webster started following Johnson at the University of Miami, then met him at Camden Yards in 1992, when Johnson was a member of the U.S. Olympic Team, and Webster a member of the Minnesota Twins.

Their paths crossed again in the National League early in Johnson's career. They would talk baseball, and Webster believed that Johnson's hitting suffered playing nearly every day in the Florida heat.

"I was hoping I'd be able to spell him this year, so he didn't have to catch every day, and could feel free swinging the bat," said Webster, who has been out since May 12 with an ankle injury. "But he's having a great year swinging the bat, anyway."

Swinging the bat, throwing out runners, learning the pitching staff -- every aspect of Johnson's game is coming together, at a time when he should be dragging from exhaustion and still adjusting to the American League.

His biggest hit of late was a two-out RBI single in the 10th inning that gave the Orioles a 6-5 comeback victory Tuesday over Kansas City. But the play that made that hit possible was his spectacular pickoff of Joe Randa at second with none out in the top of the inning.

How many Orioles catchers have made that play in recent years?

How many have made it, ever?

Johnson, who turns 28 next month, is under the Orioles' control through next season, after which he becomes eligible for free agency. He brings a quiet dignity and impeccable work ethic, making him precisely the kind of player the Orioles should want to build around.

Already this season, he has overcome a nightmarish start and improved both his hitting and his throwing during a grueling stretch in which he has caught 39 of the past 41 games.

"The guy has gone through hell the last year and a half," said Orioles bullpen coach Elrod Hendricks, a former catcher. "People think you just put on the gear and go. But it's not as easy as people think."

Just as Johnson started learning a new young pitching staff in Florida last season, he was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers. He struggled mightily, and in his first month with the Orioles, struggled again.

Johnson's most glaring April negatives were his .176 batting average and one RBI, but he wasn't satisfied with his throwing, either. He said he was rushing, and his accuracy suffered.

His hitting revived with help from Terry Crowley, the hitting coach who isn't good enough for Albert Belle. And his throwing of late has been a revelation, with Johnson nailing nine of his past 18 runners attempting to steal.

For the season, Johnson has thrown out 17 of 50 base stealers (34 percent). Texas' Ivan Rodriguez is an astonishing 20 of 27 (74.1 percent), but Johnson entered yesterday fourth in the AL among catchers with the qualifying number of attempts, a marked improvement for the Orioles.

Chris Hoiles (21.4 percent) and Webster (23.4) were the two easiest catchers in the league to run on last season. Juan Guzman allowed the most stolen bases -- he joined the Orioles on July 31 -- and Scott Erickson was second.

The pitchers are finally showing improvement holding runners, but Johnson's impact can be measured in his effect on Guzman and Erickson. Guzman is tied for second in the AL with six runners caught stealing. Erickson is tied for fourth with five.

"He's one of the few guys who has a great arm that doesn't like to throw," Hendricks said. "All spring, he never let go. I finally asked him the last week, `When are you going to turn it up?' He said, `I don't really like to throw.' It took him longer to get his arm in shape, get in rhythm.

"It wasn't for lack of work -- he's a workaholic. He comes out every day to work on something, whether it's his footwork or his hand speed."

Crowley said Johnson has been just as diligent working on his hitting. In 41 games since April 30, Johnson has batted .298, producing 11 of his 12 home runs and 28 of his 29 RBIs.

"It all started in the spring, really," Crowley said. "He hit a lot of balls good trying to shorten up his swing. I thought he had a real good spring. But his numbers didn't back us up that much.

"When the season started, he put pressure on himself to get off to a good start, and might have reverted back to some of his old habits. Gradually, he got back to what he wants to do, and what I want him to do -- be a lot shorter to the ball, level out his swing."

Johnson credits Crowley with "keeping it simple," saying that he needed such an approach after batting .218 last season with Florida and Los Angeles. His current average is .259, but his on-base average is higher than Cal Ripken's, and his slugging percentage is higher than Will Clark's.

"It's just been a case of relaxing, not pressing like I was last year and trying to do too much," Johnson said. "I dug myself a big hole, and couldn't get out of it. Even this year, I started out a little slowly, but I didn't press as badly as last year. I gave myself a chance to come out of it."

He's out of it. Maybe for good.

Why wait to extend his contract when his price will only rise and Jayson Werth is at least two years away?

Sign Charles Johnson.

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