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Dan Johnson, who hit one of Tampa Bay Rays' biggest homers, biding his time back in minors

Dan Johnson still has the bat he used to hit this huge homer off Boston’s Jonathan Papelbon. He’s just not sure about specifics.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times (2008)

Dan Johnson still has the bat he used to hit this huge homer off Boston’s Jonathan Papelbon. He’s just not sure about specifics.

It's not as if one of the most significant pieces of Rays memorabilia has gone missing. Dan Johnson has a pretty good idea of where it's at.

It's back at his home in Ham Lake, Minn. In a box. In the garage. Somewhere.

"I can't actually confirm that it's on a shelf," Johnson says while laughing on the phone.

We are talking of the bat Johnson carried with him on planes from Scranton to Philadelphia to Boston, and in a cab through rush hour traffic to Fenway Park, and finally up to the plate against Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon with the Rays trailing 4-3 in the ninth inning.

It was Sept. 9, 2008, and Johnson had just been summoned from Triple A. The Rays had lost six of seven and were three outs away from falling out of first place. Tampa Bay was 0-7 in Fenway Park that season, and Johnson was 0-for-15 as a big-league pinch-hitter.

Six pitches later, Johnson had a home run, and the memory of a lifetime.

Much has happened since then. The Rays went on to win the game, the division and the pennant. Johnson would get only four more big-league hits before taking his career to Japan in 2009.

Yet here we are, 20 months later, and everyone is back in nearly the same locations. The Rays are in first place, they are beginning another series against the Red Sox and Johnson is again waiting for a rescue call from Triple-A Durham.

"It's not that we're miserable down here. I still love playing the game, and I wouldn't be doing this if I didn't think I could make an impact," Johnson said. "But there are reminders every single day that you're in the minors."

Johnson, 30, was reminded again a week ago when the Rays released Pat Burrell and turned to Durham to find a replacement. Johnson had more home runs than Hank Blalock. More hits, more doubles, more RBIs, more walks. And still, Blalock got the call.

It was not surprising because Blalock had a contract that allowed him to become a free agent with 48 hours notice if the Rays did not promote him to Tampa Bay. And Blalock, with two All-Star appearances in his past, also has more pedigree than Johnson.

So the decision made sense. Even to the guy left behind, who hit two homers and had eight RBIs for the Bulls on Sunday.

"They did what they thought was best. And this was a way for them to hold on to both of us," Johnson said. "I get it. I understand the business side of it. You can't take it personally. If you took things personally in this game, you'll get hurt an awful lot.

"It's frustrating. I would like for them to notice me, too. But I'm not going to sit around and mope about it."

To be honest, Johnson has grown accustomed to it. It seems like several careers ago that Johnson arrived as a rookie in Oakland in 2005 and hit like a guy destined for years of success. His combination of power and plate discipline looked enviable at the time.

He hit .275 with 15 home runs as a rookie, and his combined on-base/slugging percentage was higher than teammates such as Nick Swisher, Eric Chavez, Marco Scutaro and Mark Kotsay. Yet it was Swisher who would go on to sign a five-year, $26.75 million contract. And it was Scutaro who joined Boston this offseason with a two-year, $12.5 million deal.

Johnson says he allowed himself to become intimidated by the pitcher-friendly features of McAfee Coliseum in Oakland. He hit only two of his 15 home runs at home as a rookie, and he adjusted his swing in 2006 to try to compensate.

The idea backfired and, a couple of years later after hitting .234 and .236, he was claimed by the Rays on waivers. He spent most of '08 at Durham, then agreed to go to Japan strictly for economic reasons in '09.

"I loved almost everything about Japan. The history, the culture, the food. My kids came there and got to do things that most people will never experience in their lifetimes," Johnson said. "The only thing I didn't like was the baseball."

Johnson said he was told to expect a liberal strike zone as an American in Japan, but he was unprepared for just how dramatic it got.

"Wide, high, low, inside. And it wasn't just 6 inches. We're talking about a foot off the plate. It was tough," Johnson said. "All the players told me the first year would be miserable, but you can't complain about it or it'll get worse."

Instead of sticking around to see if it would get better, Johnson signed with the Rays in the offseason. He signed before Blalock came aboard in the spring, but he already knew he was facing long odds with Carlos Peña locked in at first base.

Johnson was hitting .324 with 13 homers in his first 139 at-bats at Durham and says he is swinging as good as ever. All he can do now is wait for injuries or other factors beyond his control to open a major-league roster spot for him.

Which is not all that different from '08 when the Rays asked him to get his gear to Boston.

Though, if it happens again, Johnson will have to bring a different bat. Instead of locking it in a safe place, Johnson kept using the bat he hit the game-tying homer off of Papelbon with. A few days later, he cracked the bat.

Any regrets?

"Not at all," Johnson said. "I figured it got me one of those big hits once, I was going to keep looking for more."

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Dan Johnson, who hit one of Tampa Bay Rays' biggest homers, biding his time back in minors 05/23/10 [Last modified: Monday, May 24, 2010 8:38am]
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