Rays’ Daniel Robertson hit a pinch-hit grand slam, then visited injured player in the hospital

Published July 23 2018
Updated July 24 2018

Sometimes, the moment is perfect. Even if life is anything but.

So the guy who had not hit a home run in seven weeks was sent to the plate as a pinch-hitter with two outs in the ninth inning, and Tampa Bay losing to Miami 4-2 on Sunday afternoon.

On the second pitch he saw, infielder Daniel Robertson hit a blast over the leftfield wall for the first grand slam to end a game victoriously in Rays baseball history.

Sometimes, the words are perfect. Even if they are hard to hear.

So 90 minutes after winning Sunday’s game, the ballplayer who avoids hospitals at all costs since his father’s death, took an elevator to the seventh floor at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital.

Ignoring his own fears, Robertson had come to visit a 15-year-old high school baseball player who had suffered a catastrophic neck injury on July 8.

Hours removed from the greatest day of his career, Robertson explained to Joey Johnston how he has come to realize there is so much more to life than the next baseball game.

• • •

There was no tree too high, no adventure too extreme for Joey. He was a centerfielder on the diamond, and a thrill seeker everywhere else.

One of the main cogs on Tampa’s Keystone Little League team that would win three consecutive state titles and come within arm’s reach of the Little League World Series, Joey earned a roster spot on the Alonso varsity team just months into his freshman year of high school.

He was carrying a 4.2 GPA and more rambunctiousness than a parent could fathom.

"Fearless. Crazy. I used to tell people, ‘I’m just trying to keep him alive until he’s 18,’’’ his mother Angela Johnston said Monday. "I’m not kidding you. I used to text him: Are you still alive?’’

That explains how Joey and two friends found themselves atop a bridge on the Pinellas Bayway not far from the Don CeSar on St. Petersburg Beach. They were supposed to be spending the afternoon on the beach, but had planned this side adventure without much fear or thought.

Sixty-five feet above the water, the first boy dropped off the bridge feet-first. Second in line, Joey felt the need to go one step farther. He did a backflip off the bridge but over-rotated and slammed into the water on his back. The impact broke his neck and several vertebrae in his back.

Had his friend not already been in the water, Joey would have drowned. A nearby boat appeared and helped get him to the shore where an ambulance was already waiting.

The paramedics would later tell his parents that Joey, recognizing he was paralyzed, talked only about how foolish he had been to do this to his mother and father.

Five days after he arrived at the hospital, he underwent five hours of stabilization surgery. Three days later, he had another four-hour surgery. He still has no feeling below his waist, but doctors want to wait a few more weeks to determine his long-term prognosis.

Meanwhile, he has begun regaining some movement in his upper body and is due to transfer to a rehabilitation center in Atlanta in the next day or two.

The two weeks have been a mix of pain, fear and dread. Nights are the worst, and each day has brought further recognition of what’s in store for Joey.

And yet, there is also a sense of gratitude that the accident could have been worse. And there has been an incredible outpouring in the community, including a GoFundMe.com page with nearly 500 donors.

"He’s the same kid he’s always been, he’s just dealing with some physical issues that he never had before,’’ said his father, Joey Johnston Sr. "I always believed he would do something special with his life, and I’m still convinced of that today. A path has been cleared for him, and who knows where this new path will take him. But I’m very optimistic the final result will be the best it can possibly be.’’

•••

Johnston, a longtime sportswriter with the Tampa Tribune who also worked for the Tampa Bay Times, had spent time with Robertson at Tropicana Field in June to work on feature for the Rays stadium magazine.

When Rays communications director Dave Haller found out about Joey’s injury, he had players sign a jersey and asked Robertson if he would like to go with him to deliver it to the hospital. Robertson was unable to go, but the story stuck in his mind.

"Knowing his background, having talked to his dad, I just kept thinking that I was in that kid’s shoes not too long ago,’’ Robertson said. "I was a baseball player, I did crazy things, that could have been me. I just decided I had to go and see him.’’

Robertson informed Haller on Sunday morning that he would head to the hospital after the game. Haller told Joey’s dad, who kept the information to himself for fear that something might postpone the visit.

There were about 10 friends and family members in Joey’s room when Robertson’s home run caused an eruption so loud that Angela had to shush everyone and remind them they were in a hospital.

Johnston kept quiet through the entire celebration, and 90 minutes later was waiting in the hallway when Robertson got off the elevator. Told that he had another visitor, Joey recognized Robertson the minute he walked in the door.

"I said, ‘We just saw you hit the grand slam.’ He said, ‘I did it for you, bud,’’’ Joey said. "It was just awesome.’’

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