Johnson gets hometown reception
A vocal group of A's enthusiasts were seated just up the first-base line in section 111 of the Metrodome while Oakland won three of four in Minnesota recently. That's where dozens of family members and friends of Oakland rookie Dan Johnson, a local product, were holding fort.
According to A's traveling secretary Mickey Morabito, Johnson had to hit up his teammates for their tickets to accommodate all the requests from Coon Rapids, Minn At $34 a pop, Johnson's IRS liability for his benevolence comes to more than $600 of taxable income. In addition, Dan's dad, Ron, bought 100 extra tickets of his own. Good thing he's a mortgage banker because he may need an extra mortgage or two to pay for the privilege.
Dan didn't dissapoint, homering twice in the series, and scoring the winning run in the second game. It wasn't the first time Johnson had played or homered in the Metrodome, but it was the first time it didn't occur in the middle of the night. Because Minnesota's weather is brutal in the spring, most high school teams only get to play about a dozen games.
During his senior year, Johnson's Blaine High School baseball team rented out the Metrodome for a game, but the only time the baseball team could have access was 2 a.m., and only half the lights were on in a building where it's already tough to see flyballs. Johnson's high school team played a live game in front of close friends and family, and Johnson homered. And just like that night eight years ago, he returned to his old bedroom in Coon Rapids. This time, though, the bed was too small and he was sharing the room with his wife and baby boy.
Johnson had a similar problem at the A's next stop in Kansas City, the closest city to his wife's relatives in Nebraska and to his old pals in Lincoln, where he played for the University of Nebraska. Johnson said he wasn't aware of how many supporters were in the crowd at Kauffman Stadium, but he was 0-for-5 Sunday, ending a four-game home run streak and a 10-game hitting streak.
Johnson is the latest in a line of superb products from the A's farm system, along with fellow rookie Nick Swisher, the leading candidate to succeed teammate Bobby Crosby as American League Rookie of the Year. There's a direct parallel between the A's eruption from a dismal start and Crosby's return from the disabled list on May 30. Since then the A's have gone from 15 games under .500 to a tie for the division lead with the Angels, who visit Oakland for a three-game series beginning Tuesday.
Unlike last year when he hit seventh or eighth in the order, Crosby has moved up to the pivotal three hole and asserted himself by going to the opposite field more. But it was more by necessity rather than design. When the season began, lefty Mark Kotsay was the leadoff man, and -- except for righty Jason Kendall -- there was an endless stream of left-handed batters in Eric Chavez, Erubiel Durazo, Scott Hatteberg, and the switch-hitting Swisher. With Crosby in the three hole, and Kendall moved to the top, there's now a perfect left/right balance in the lineup.
For the third straight season, manager Ken Macha has a new catcher (Kendall) handling his pitching staff, one that includes only Barry Zito from the original "Big Three" of Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Zito. In Macha's first season as A's manager, his backstop was Ramon Hernandez, who was Macha's "personal project." Macha, former major-league catcher, was able to mold Hernandez to the point where he knew every pitch that would be called.
Last season they brought in Damian Miller, who was instrumental in the development of Rich Harden. Like Hernandez, Kendall was brought in for his offense. While he's struggled to throw out runners, his marriage with the young staff and holdover Zito, as well as his aggressiveness in defending home plate and running the bases, has been a perfect fit for Oakland.
Macha also appreciates Kendall's aggressiveness with some of his young pitchers. On a team littered with players suffering back ailments, Joe Blanton was laboring through a recent start, and holding his back at times. Kendall went to the mound to see if everything was all right. When Blanton said his back was fine, Kendall barked at him, "Then why don't you start throwing the ball like it then?" And he did.
When Torii Hunter went down in a heap at Fenway Park 10 days ago, the Twins not only lost the most feared bat in the middle of the lineup, but a Gold Glove defender, and the spirit of the franchise. Hunter's effervesence, even in the throes of their drought, kept the team from ever losing hope. Hunter's dazzling, perpetual smile has been replaced by a hard cast and crutches, and teammates like Jacque Jones, Mike Redmond, Matthew LeCroy and Silva are left to raise the optimism in his absence.
It's one thing the franchise has always possessed, back to the championship teams of Puckett, Hrbek, Viola, Gladden, Brunansky, and Blyleven -- boyish mischievousness even in the face of doom. Witness Silva's pregame serenade during their six-game skid, or how he was replaced with an inflatable, well, replacement in the annual team picture while he was warming up that night. It doesn't hurt to have a manager like Ron Gardenhire or coaches like Al Newman, a teammate of those past Twins' pranksters, to help keep things loose.
Minnesota had grown so desperate for runs before a pair of outbursts against Boston that starting pitcher Brad Radke called out Newman for not sending runners more liberally from his third-base coaching box. Rather than starting an internal incident, Newman responded to the dropped gauntlet by telling his runners, "OK, that's it, you guys are getting sent to the guillotine. From now on, everyone gets waved."
What makes it even tougher for the Twins to score, especially with Hunter out, is that the plodding Justin Morneau is far from the slowest guy on the team. Save for Shannon Stewart and Jones, they're all pretty much station-to-station guys, and when Matthew LeCroy recently decided to go from first to third on a single, he looked at the third-base box only to see Newman with his hands over his eyes. By the way, he was safe.
Twins GM Terry Ryan hoped Bret Boone could rekindle some of his past magic after the Mariners released him, but he was even worse as a Twin. He wanted to hit third, insisted his only position was second base, and expected to be in the lineup everyday. But he never got an extra-base hit as a Twin, barely worked on his defensive routines and didn't assimiliate to new teammates.
On the plane back from Boston, he was told the team would be making a move with him. His career at a crossroads, the three-time All-Star will immerse himself in some intensive swing therapy with his dad Bob, and contemplate a return with someone else, either before Sept. 1 or next spring, or face the possibility of retirement.
The inductions of Ryne Sandberg and Wade Boggs into the Baseball Hall of Fame drew one of the largest and most spirited gatherings ever in Cooperstown. But 2006 may be the first year since 1996 when no one is voted into the regular Hall of Fame. The first-time eligibles are led by Orel Hershiser, Will Clark and Doc Gooden. That may mean longtime holdovers Goose Gossage, Bruce Sutter and Bert Blyleven could finally get the necessary votes, and the Veterans Committee could reward Gil Hodges and Ron Santo with their rightful inclusion into the Hall next summer.
Gary Miller is a reporter for ESPN's major league baseball coverage.