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Tenacity pays for new Tampa Bay Rays first baseman Dan Johnson

ST. PETERSBURG — For more years than he would care to recall, this has been a day of heartache for Dan Johnson. A new season would arrive, and he would inevitably depart.

Maybe there was a time, some years ago, when Johnson assumed his place in the majors was relatively safe, but that moment passed more quickly than he could have imagined.

He has been sent to Sacramento and to Durham. He has started a season on the disabled list and on the bench. In search of a fatter paycheck, he once spent an opening day on the other side of the globe playing for the Yokohama BayStars.

So do not discount what Friday night's first pitch will mean to a 31-year-old first baseman whose opening-day resume in the big leagues begins and ends with one at-bat.

Because now, in 2011, Dan Johnson has a new lease on his baseball life. After all his starts and stops, he is the new first baseman for the defending AL East champions.

"It was a long journey," Johnson said Wednesday afternoon at Tropicana Field. "It was a lot of trying times, I'm not going to lie.

"Some things happened when I was a younger player that I didn't understand then like I would today. It just kind of slipped through my fingers, and it was hard for me to swallow. It was like, 'How did I let that go?' "

Some of it was circumstance. Some of it was performance. Some of it was just a stink load of poor luck.

At this point, the details are unimportant. The larger issue is that Johnson refused to yield, and the Rays have found reason to place a great deal of faith in a guy who has persevered.

"It's tough. It's tough," said manager Joe Maddon. "I do appreciate the perseverance. The mind-set. You really have to have that reality check at some point and stick your ego in the back pocket.

"I am impressed with that and how far he's come and what he's done to get back here."

Essentially, Johnson has survived being waived in Oakland a couple of weeks into the 2008 season, a year at Triple-A Durham, a year in Japan and a return to Durham in 2010.

Granted, he is not a stranger to Tampa Bay. Johnson was called up from Triple A late in '08 and hit one of the most dramatic home runs in franchise history with first place in the AL East on the line in the ninth inning at Boston's Fenway Park.

Two years later he got another callup from Durham and delivered a handful of game-winning hits on the way to another division title last season.

Yet, for all the heroics, the truth is Johnson is several years removed from being an everyday player in the big leagues. He crushed the ball in Triple A, he hit a couple dozen homers in Japan, but he has a total of 22 hits in the majors in the past three years.

That's not much of a track record for a guy at the most offensive-minded position on the field. Still, the Rays have had success with this kind of player.

In 2007 Tampa Bay gave Carlos Peña a chance at first base after he had spent the previous 13 months bouncing among four organizations. Over the next four seasons, Peña became the franchise's all-time home run leader.

What the Rays see in Johnson is the same thing they saw in Peña: a player with good power potential and a discerning eye at the plate. Johnson will not likely hit for a high average, and he will probably be in the neighborhood of 100 strikeouts, but that should be offset by 25 or so homers and close to 100 walks.

"He's a very similar hitter to Carlos, he really is," Maddon said.

The expectations for defense are not as promising, and Johnson is well aware of that. That's why he spent the winter working on his agility in a gym/batting cage he built at his Minnesota home. His weight is down from 230 at the start of last season to around 205.

He may never convince anyone that he can be as slick around the base as Peña, but Johnson does not want to be considered a liability in the field, either.

"I don't want to be the guy they just throw out there because he has a bat," Johnson said. "I want people to think, 'This is our first baseman. We know what he's going to do.' "

Johnson has been through the disappointment of losing a job he thought was firmly in his grip. Back then, he was in his mid 20s and working to adjust to big-league pitching and a home ballpark that did not reward a hitter going the opposite way.

It has been six years since he arrived in Oakland as one of the top prospects in an organization that also had Nick Swisher and Nelson Cruz in its minor-league system.

And a guy who logged more than 300 games in the majors from 2005-07 was limited to 51 from 2008-10.

"Most guys never get this opportunity, and it's in front of me again," Johnson said. "I'm really going to make the most of it this time. I'm not going to let it go."

Tenacity pays for new Tampa Bay Rays first baseman Dan Johnson 03/30/11 [Last modified: Thursday, March 31, 2011 1:40am]

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