ICYMI: DJ Johnson's Dream Just Keeps Getting Better
DJ Johnson refused to quit facing the dream. And after nine years in the minor leagues with five Major League organizations, plus two trips to independent ball, he finally got the call to the big leagues. A September call-up with the Rockies, Johnson, who had never even been at the Triple-A level until this year, added another dream come true on Thursday night.
He got the call with one out in the seventh inning of the first game of the Rockies-Brewers NL Division Series, and responded by striking out two of the three batters he faced, keeping the score at a 2-0 deficit.
In light of that, I am reposting a column I wrote on Johnson last month, which might give you a glimpse of how committed the man has been to being a big-league pitcher.
It was just a couple of minutes on a Sunday afternoon.
DJ Johnson threw only 12 pitches.
But it was the ultimate reward for the ultimate baseball lifer.
At the end of his ninth year in pro ball in which he had pitched for 12 different teams, including two stints with the Traverse City Beach Bums in the independent Frontier League, and having spent last winter pitching in Los Mochis in the Mexican winter league, Johnson reached lucky 13 – the Rockies.
He made his big-league debut with one out in the fifth inning of a Sept. 9, 9-6 loss to the Dodgers. At the time, the Rockies were trailing 6-2, and there was a runner on third. Twelve pitches later, that runner was still on third, the inning was over and Johnson had struck out both batters he faced.
“It has been a long and winding road to get here,” said Johnson. “There have been a lot of ups and downs.”
There have been, in all honestly, a lot more downs.
Face it, Johnson was a first baseman at Western Oregon, which is far from a baseball hotbed. He finished school in 2009, kicked around some ideas about what he might do to make a living, and then saw a crack in the door to pursuing his passion for baseball.
“I was a pitcher in high school, and the pitching coach at Western Oregon coached a high school all-star team that every year played the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes, a short-season team for the Giants,” said Johnson. “He asked me to pitch a couple innings, just so it wouldn’t be a complete slaughter, and there happened to be a scout for Tampa Bay in the stands. He called my head coach at Western Oregon, and three days later called me asking me if I wanted a job.”
The answer was an emphatic yes.
And the journey became, even if it was a whole lot different than what Johnson would dream about during his youth in Portland.
“It’s something I always wanted to do, but I always thought I’d be a hitter,” he said. “But I wouldn’t have it any other way right now. It’s been a long, crazy journey, and everything that I’ve done up until this point seemed like it was pointless. But now? It’s been worth it.”
Long and crazy journey?
It has taken him from pitching at the Rookie-league level in Tampa and Missoula, the Single-A level in Visalia, South Bend and Fort Myers, the Double-A level in Chattanooga, Little Rock, and Hartford, the Triple-A level in Albuquerque, as well as Traverse City in independent ball, and Los Mochis, Mex., last winter to supplement his income and take care of his family.
He spent time with six Major League organizations.
“I wasn’t really focused too much on what I was going to do next year as I was what I was going to do this off-season,” he said. “I have plans to play in the Dominican, to help support my family. That’s tough. Last year I played three months in Mexico, and was away from my family all off-season. It was tough, but I had to do it to support them, and my wife made it work. She was really understanding.”
She has to be. There are four children at home.
The first week of September, all that changed.
Triple-A Albuquerque’s season ended, and, much to Johnson’s surprise, his big-league career began, finally. After eight seasons in organized baseball, in which he appeared in 343 games – one as a starter and 342 in relief – working 448 innings for teams in 11 different cities, and another year playing wherever he could find a game, the Rockies called him up.
He had made 56 relief appearances at Albuquerque, compiling a 3.90 ERA, and in addition to issuing only 15 walks in 55 1/3 innings, he struck out a career-best 84 batters.
Johnson didn’t discuss the money, but he’ll get roughly one-sixth of the big-league minimum for spending September with the Rockies, which is around $90,000 _ sizably more than three years minor-league salary combined. And he will get a chunk of post-season money.
His love affair with baseball, however, was not financially driven, which is underscored by that minor-league resume. It’s been about pursuing a childhood dream and refusing to accept no for an answer.
“For me, it has been. ‘I’ll keep playing until my arm falls off or somebody doesn’t want to give me a jersey anymore,’” said Johnson. “My wife has been supportive of that. My entire family has been supportive of that. They know what I’m working for. They know what my dream is. Luckily my wife is here right now and gets to be a part of all this.”
And truth be told, as much as a hardship as it was to be away from his family last winter, that three-month stint in Los Mochis is where the seeds were planted for his big-league opportunity.
“I learned how to pitch with my breaking ball,” he said. “Last year (at Double-A Hartford) I was a cutter guy. I probably threw 90 percent cutters last year. I could have told a hitter I was going to throw a cutter and they still wouldn’t hit it.
“Working with Darryl Scott last year, he told he wanted me to get a little more angle. Going to Mexico really taught me how to pitch with my breaking ball because you have to down there to succeed. Just a combination of that, changing my mechanics a little, took me to the next level.”
Then, spending this summer at Albuquerque, which like Denver has an altitude a mile high, made it clear to Johnson that a curveball works at altitude, as well as sea level, even if adjustments have to be made.
“The hard part was when you’d leave Albuquerque and go other places,” said Johnson. “I remember our first road trip to Tacoma. The ball was doing things I’d never seen a baseball do. You spend two weeks in Albuquerque and Salt Lake (the first stop on the road trip) and everything is pretty straight. You go to Tacoma and the air is a little more dense and there is a lot of movement. Going from city to city, you learned to adjust. I had to take time every day to hone in my release point.”
It’s an adjustment Johnson learned to make.
And now he’s adjusting to big-league life.
His childhood dream has come true – finally.