Braves rave about Reed Johnson's presence
Veteran reserve lightens mood with teammates, provides depth in outfield
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Some interesting tidbits about Braves outfielder Reed Johnson include the fact he is one of five players in Major League history to hit a leadoff home run and walk-off home run in the same game.
There is also the fact that Chase Utley is the only player who has been hit by more pitches than Johnson since the start of the 2003 season.
And then there is that Johnson was an Academic All-American during his collegiate career.
"Really?" Braves pitcher Tim Hudson said with astonishment. "Was he? What school?"
Johnson attended Cal State Fullerton from 1997-99 and helped the Titans reach the College World Series during his final year on campus.
"Does that count?" Hudson said. "What, he majored in water polo or sun-tan lotion applications? It would be hard to see him taking classes seriously. You see him in class cutting up, spitting spitballs and making fun of the teacher. Not the guy taking notes."
With that description, it seems little has changed for Johnson dating back to the days when he was majoring in kinesiology with aspirations of becoming a physical therapist. Back then, he was having fun with baseball and committing himself to his studies when necessary.
Now, he can be described as a guy who will trade comedic jabs with a teammate before a game and then completely ignore that same teammate if he is preparing to come off the bench for a pinch-hit appearance.
"Everyone says, 'Man, when you play you're a real [jerk],'" Johnson said. "But when you're not playing you can have a better time and relax. When it gets closer to when that bell is ringing, it's like a totally different person."
When the Braves acquired Johnson and Paul Maholm from the Cubs just before last year's Trading Deadline, they knew Johnson could provide defensive versatility as a backup outfielder and serve as a veteran right-handed presence on their bench. During the two months that followed, they also gained a better sense of why his former teams and teammates viewed him as a valuable clubhouse presence.
"He's the perfect personality for this team," right fielder Jason Heyward said. "You appreciate it like you did with [Eric] Hinske and David Ross. He's got great experience and he's been around the game. He's obviously been around this game this long for a reason. I have a lot of respect for him. You can't take guys like that for granted."
Hudson, Hinske, Ross and Peter Moylan were among the most vocal and comical voices in what has been a harmonious and fun clubhouse the past few years. With Hudson being the only member of this group still with the Braves, the clubhouse has been a little quieter as the players get to know each other during the early stages of Spring Training.
"It's definitely a different environment for sure," Hudson said. "You had a lot more people to volley around funny comments with before. Some people aren't comfortable doing that. It's just different personalities. I'm not saying it's a good or bad thing. It's good to have a light atmosphere in the clubhouse."
Recognizing this, the Braves made a strong pursuit to re-sign the 36-year-old Johnson, who agreed to a $1.6 million one-year contract in December.
"He's a guy who is going to keep the locker room loose and he's not afraid to get after somebody if he has to," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "He's a straight professional. That's something that we spoke to him about before we signed him. But that's just one of the many reasons we wanted him on our club."
Whether imitating his former manager Lou Piniella, trading jabs or fooling unsuspecting victims with his claim that he can perform magic, Johnson has the ability to help his teammates laugh and have fun over the course of a long and sometimes frustrating season.
"A lot of people say that chemistry is overrated," Johnson said. "But when you're coming to work as much as we do for 162 games and you don't really enjoy the guys you're around ... I've been in that situation. I think like in any business it can affect productivity."
Johnson saw this first-hand when he and his Cubs teammates fed off of Mark DeRosa's energy during their 97-win season in 2008. With DeRosa gone and the often derisive Milton Bradley present the next year, the Cubs endured an 83-win season that was filled with frustration.
"There's still a really good group of guys left in this clubhouse and that was by far one of the sole reasons I came back to the organization," Johnson said. "These guys that are in this clubhouse make it fun to come to the park every day and it makes a year that can be a total grind a whole lot easier to deal with.
"[DeRosa] was the one guy who held that [2008 Cubs] team together. There is more than just one guy holding this team together. That's why when you lose one or two you can still be OK."
Along with being a clubhouse leader, Johnson can still prove valuable when it is time for him to get serious between the white lines. Last year, he led the Majors in pinch-hits and ranked second among pinch-hitters with a .419 (18-for-43) batting average. And when Heyward or either of the Upton brothers need a break, he can play any of the three outfield positions.
"He's a guy I was so happy that they brought back," Braves second baseman Dan Uggla said. "Not only is he one of the best at what he does, but he's also great in the clubhouse."