Expanded comfort zone

Orioles: A larger homestead with space for a batting cage, and an extra year of familiarity with his teammates, have given catcher Charles Johnson room to grow.

March 16, 2000|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- When Charles Johnson moved his family last winter from Pembroke Pines to nearby Plantation, he didn't classify it as a career move.

His 20-month-old son, Brandon, needed room to romp and Johnson wanted to provide him the freedom of an acre lot. It also enabled Johnson to install an outdoor batting cage and throw himself into a winter remodeling effort.

Four or five times a week, Orioles batting practice pitcher Rudy Arias would drive from his Miami home to Plantation. He would feed Johnson pitches for about an hour with the catcher implementing the suggestions made last year by hitting coach Terry Crowley.

"The cage was a tough call: Do I put in something full-size that takes up most of the yard, or put a shorter cage in that frees up space? I decided on the shorter one. I still get my work, and my son has enough room to run around. It worked for everybody," said Johnson, who spent previous winters at impromptu workouts where the pitching was poor and time often wasted.

Johnson's five-year major-league career has been defined by defense. A four-time Gold Glove winner with the Florida Marlins and Los Angeles Dodgers, he carries a .238 career average and has never driven in more than the 63 runs he had for the 1997 Marlins. He has averaged 115 strikeouts the past three seasons while still waiting for his first 20-home run season.

Last year's introduction to the American League was a fitful one. Johnson, 28, arrived in camp familiar with no one and with his third team in nine months. He languished offensively for a month, rebounded in early summer, then crashed late from the strain of catching 135 games. He finished with a .251 average, tying a career high, but was disappointed with his 16 home runs and 54 RBIs because of their lack of consistency.

Johnson carries bruises from previous assessments of his offensive shortcomings. Before sending him to the Orioles in a three-team deal Dec. 1, 1998, the Dodgers had urged him to attend the developmental Arizona Fall League to remake himself offensively. No one had concluded that his disappointing .217 average with the Dodgers had much to do with his shock over being traded by his hometown Marlins and the distraction of his wife being ready to deliver their first child.

A partnership with Orioles hitting coach Terry Crowley has been more productive. The two are trying to smooth out inconsistencies that resulted in his accumulating nine home runs last May but only one homer and seven RBIs after Aug. 6.

"He really helped me out by not making things complicated. He kept things simple," Johnson said. "Of all the work we did in the cages, the most important thing he did was to keep things simple mechanically and mentally. He doesn't try to force things on you."

Crowley's approach is not intrusive. Rather than try to retrofit a player to a swing, Crowley tailors his beliefs to the individual. With Johnson, less is often more.

"I reached a point where I was so focused on mechanics -- trying to be perfect -- I lost sight of just hitting the ball," Johnson said. "I just need to hit a baseball the way I know how. I lost sight of seeing the ball and hitting the ball. Over the years, people have always tried to change things. `If I do this, I'll be better.' Sometimes you lose sight of the main thing you're up there for. You can't think about having a textbook-type swing. If you really focus on hitting the ball, mechanically you're going to be there. Your talent will lead you to the baseball.

"Hey, there's a guy out there throwing 95 miles per hour. You can't be getting caught up in mechanics. Over the years, I think that's happened."

Johnson has appeared "looser" this spring.

"I don't know why but I feel lighter, more flexible," he said.

Perhaps Johnson's sense of liberation comes from finding himself accustomed to his surroundings. He arrived in Fort Lauderdale last spring unfamiliar with the entire pitching staff. His desire to learn a new bullpen was stymied when he never caught a reliever.

Traditionally a slow starter, Johnson finished April hitting .176, below his .207 career average for the month.

"It's hard to do anything when you're tense. Physically, all of us are capable of playing up here. What separates great hitters from average hitters is preparation and being loose. That's what I've been trying to work on -- prepare for the game and just play," he said.

Rather than overhaul his swing, Johnson has tweaked his mind-set.

"The whole thing this off-season was to become more relaxed before the pitch is thrown. Sometimes I try to do too much or hit the ball too hard. I need to trust myself more," he said.

Johnson believes himself better able to separate his catching responsibilities from his hitting now that he is more familiar with this staff. He is no longer a novice to American League pitching and will receive more consistent down time this season than last, when he once played in 28 consecutive games, including 27 starts.

"There are a lot of reasons to expect this to be a solid season," he said. "I'm looking forward to it. I really am. Just knowing helps."

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