BALTIMORE -- Thirty years later, Dave Johnson still laughs. It’s almost like three decades removed, even he still can’t believe it.
“The whole thing,” Johnson says, animated and engaged, as if telling the story for the first time, “was just crazy.”
He’s talking about 1989, the year that etched him into Orioles lore, the year that cemented his ties to the organization that persist to this day. But he may as well be speaking of the whole journey, from unknown to long shot to how-is-he-doing-this to now, given the chance to look back on it all. And honestly, he kind of is.
“I always wanted to play for the Orioles,” Johnson said. “I grew up here watching Brooks [Robinson] and Frank [Robinson] and Boog [Powell] and [Jim] Palmer. When I was 6, they beat the Dodgers in the World Series. When I’m 10,11, 12, 13, they’re the best team in baseball. There isn’t a better place to grow up than in Baltimore when I’m a kid.”
How many of those kids get their wish? This is still Johnson, at almost 60 (he’ll turn it October 24). Still mustached, self-effacing and refreshingly relatable, with as one former Orioles executive puts it “a heart as real and Baltimore and Oriole as they come.” Still “Magic” -- just now on the airwaves instead of the mound.
“I love working with Dave because I’m going to receive -- and the listener is going to receive -- his authentic self at all times,” said Kevin Brown, Johnson’s part-time play-by-play partner on the Orioles Radio Network. “He is on the air who is he off the air. We strive for authenticity in this business, and Dave doesn’t have [an] inauthentic bone in his body.”
For as familiar as fans may be with Johnson, Brown’s assessment serves as a litmus test for how well those qualities still resonate with listeners who don’t have history with him. A New York native, Brown had never been to Camden Yards before he was hired by the Orioles last spring. At age 29, he wasn’t born when Johnson burst onto the scene in ’89.
The events of that autumn -- the consecutive complete games, American League Player of the Week honors, and the date with destiny in Toronto -- would’ve qualified Johnson as a cult hero should he have drifted from the purview. That he returned puts Johnson, now in his 14th year calling Orioles games for radio and MASN, on venerable ground with a fanbase that cherishes its past.
“The most fun thing about Dave on the air is his ability to go in any direction -- and to go there with boundless energy,” Brown said. “He's brutally honest one minute, not sugarcoating how he feels about mechanics, consistency and pitch sequencing for either team. The next moment, he's reaching into an endless reservoir of self-deprecating jokes at the expense of his career. And the next, he’s singing Jay and the Americans.”
The cracks don’t stop in any setting, private or public. The latest example came in August, when Johnson received as loud an ovation of anyone not named Ripken at the Orioles’ 30th anniversary celebration of the ’89 team, despite his relatively minor role in the scope of that season. Johnson didn’t debut until Aug. 1 that year, made 14 starts down the stretch, and, in his words, is “remembered for a game we lost.”
But he knows it’s for so much more than that: for the circumstances, the turnaround, for how he in many ways embodied the group of castoffs and unproven players who went from worst-to-almost-first that year. Still, the seven stellar innings he threw on September 30, 1989, in a jam-packed SkyDome, overshadow any of the 76 games he wound up pitching in the Majors.
Thrust into emergency duty after scheduled starter Pete Harnisch stepped on a nail, Johnson left with a two-run lead before the Blue Jays rallied to eliminate the Orioles and functionally end their Cinderella season.
“That’s kind of how my career went,” Johnson said. “If people remember me, they remember me as 'God, how did he do that?' Because they just knew. I was a truck driver from Middle River (Md.), who was somehow in the middle of the last NBC Game of the Week! Here is the truck driver pitching against the Blue Jays, trying to win the pennant for the Orioles!' It’s so fitting!”
For nearly two dozen members of that team, last month’s reunion at Camden Yards was an opportunity to revel in old memories from the roller-coaster summer of ‘89. For Johnson, who is around the ballpark regularly, it provided a chance to deadpan.
“For this huge celebration, everyone has highlights,” Harnisch said during an on-field Q&A during the ceremony. “My story is about stepping on a board.”
“My question is: Where was Dave Johnson when that nail was planted?” asked public address announcer Ryan Wagner, who was moderating the panel.
“We don’t know,” Harnisch said. “There have been conspiracy theories before.”
Said Johnson: “I was fortunate to have a road map of where Pete was walking home that night.”
Johnson still points out how after seven Minor League seasons, years driving a UPS truck and multiple tours in winter ball, he had to pay his way to the big leagues -- literally.
He was 29. Twelve years earlier, Johnson had quit Essex Community College, saying, “I realized all the best pitchers in Baltimore County went there." They quit baseball and became a tractor-trailer driver. It was five years before Johnson reluctantly filled in for a friend in a local adult league game and caught the eye of Pirates area scout Bob Dawson.
Over the next six years, Johnson slowly climbed the rungs of Pittsburgh’s system, eventually earning a five-game cup of coffee in '87. He then spent the entire ’88 season excelling at Triple-A, while a promotion he said was promised by then-general manager Syd Thrift never came.
“They didn’t think I could pitch in the big leagues, which was fine. Most people didn’t,” Johnson said. “Let me go. I’ll get a job with somebody else.”
The Pirates granted Johnson his release that October, and he signed with the Astros two months later. On the final day of the following spring, Johnson learned that he’d been traded to the Orioles.
After four more months at Triple-A -- his fourth year at the level -- they came calling. Johnson was to pitch the second game of a doubleheader in Boston, the surprise Orioles clinging to a one-game lead atop the AL East. But as was the theme of Johnson’s career, nothing ever came easy.
“I go to the airport in the morning. There is supposed to be a prepaid ticket for me,” Johnson said. “Turns out, there isn’t. The Orioles booked it out of the wrong airport. So I give them my credit card.
“Then I get to [Boston’s] Logan Airport, and it’s misty, raining, I’m thinking ‘Are we going to play?’ I get a cab, and we ride around for about an hour. I don’t know how long it takes to get from Logan to Fenway. After a while, I’m like, ‘Do you know where you’re going? I gotta get to the ballpark! I have to pitch!’ Then we’re at the gate, and they won’t let me in.”
It wasn’t until security called Orioles GM Roland Hemond that Johnson was granted entry. What happened next is well documented: Johnson lost that first start, but he notched complete-game victories in three of his next four, morphing into an overnight sensation (“... after seven years!” as Jon Miller famously exclaimed on the radio) down the stretch.
“It wasn’t as though Dave Johnson was fooling many people,” Miller said this year. “But he was shutting them down.”
In Baltimore, Johnson became a symbol of the fruits that hard work, perseverance and a little bit of luck. Elsewhere, Johnson remained anonymous. That may have worked to his advantage.
“Billy Ripken told me a story once,” Johnson said, "we were playing the Athletics, the next year, and Dave Henderson was on first base and they were making a pitching change. Billy was wandering over to talk to Dave. He goes to Billy, ‘Hey, who’s pitching tomorrow?’
“Magic,” Billy said.
“Who the hell is Magic Johnson?” said Dave Henderson. “What does he got?”
Then Billy said: “The catcher throws down a bunch of fingers, but it all looks the same."
A’s manager Bob Melvin -- then Baltimore’s catcher -- tells another.
“I remember he was pitching against Detroit. He’d pitched a few good games in a row,” Melvin recalled. “Alan Trammell comes to the plate and says, ‘What’s this guy got?’ I said, ‘You watch.’ He rears back and throws an 84 mph fastball down the middle with no movement at all. Trammell looks back at me and goes, ‘That’s it? I said, ‘That’s it. That’s definitely it.'"
Johnson used those low expectations as fuel, never hiding from his limitations. He still doesn’t.
“That was my driving force. I needed that. If I didn’t have that, I couldn’t compete at that level,” Johnson said. “At the end of the next year, I remember sitting back in my lounge chair and saying, ‘I made it.’ And I went right in the toilet from there. I lost that edge. My stuff wasn’t good enough. But my stuff combined with ‘I’m coming at ya, this is everything I’ve got, and I’m going to prove to you that I could do this,’ even though deep down inside, I wasn’t sure I could.”
After making 57 starts for the Orioles over parts of three seasons, arm trouble found Johnson as he was fighting for another big league chance with Detroit. His comet of a Major League career ended in 1993, at age 33. But he was far from done, all those dues paid into a baseball life that, three decades later, is still ongoing.
“A lot of people would look at it in a negative way, like, ‘That guy wasn’t very good.' I know I wasn’t!” Johnson said. “But I pitched parts of five years in the big leagues and you don’t do that by luck. I played 12 years professionally. I did some things that a lot of guys who were a lot more talented than I was didn’t do. I take pride in that. I wear it as a badge of honor, knowing he wasn’t very good, but he did some things he wasn’t supposed to do.”
Joe Trezza covers the Orioles for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JoeTrezz.