Q&A: Former scout Johnson on discovering Pudge

January 7th, 2017

Sandy Johnson signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates out of high school in 1958, and he is quick to point out on that the following year, while playing for Class D San Angelo/Roswell, he tied for fifth on the team in home runs with Willie Stargell. They each hit seven home runs.

"He developed more power along the way," Johnson said, laughing.

That's OK. Johnson developed his own identity -- as a scout. And during his days as a scouting director with the Padres and the Rangers, Johnson made an impact, particularly with his success in signing and developing players out of Latin America.

Among those players was Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez, who the Rangers signed at the age of 17, and who was catching in the Majors on a daily basis at 19.

Rodriguez is in his first year of eligibility for the Hall of Fame, and there is a chance he could be among the players inducted into Cooperstown next summer.

The results of the 73rd BBWAA Hall of Fame election will be revealed Wednesday, Jan. 18 at 6 p.m. ET live on MLB Network, and simulcast live on MLB.com beginning at 5 p.m.

Johnson talked with MLB.com recently about finding and signing Rodriguez, which is featured in this week's Q&A:

MLB.com: How did you come across Rodriguez?

Johnson: We were going down to the Latin countries. Melvin Nieves was the hot prospect in Puerto Rico, so we were going to work him out and then to go the Virgin Islands to see Midre Cummings, who was another hot item. Our Latin scout, Luis Rosa, had 11 or 13 guys at the workout in Puerto Rico. After awhile, I'm in the dugout, talking with Nieves, and [scout] Doug Gassaway comes running in from the outfield, yelling, 'That little guy just threw 93 miles an hour to second base.' He's talking about Pudge. Why he was out there clocking catchers throwing to second base, I got no idea, but he was. That was Gasser. He was ahead of the game. I'm sure everybody is doing that now. They time everything. So we had Pudge hit and run the bases.

MLB.com: So what happens next?

Johnson: I tell Luis we like him. Luis has these four other catchers he liked, and they all signed and got big money, but I told him I didn't care about those guys. We wanted Pudge. I told him Pudge's dad was in the stands, and go up and see what it was going to take. About 3 o'clock, I said, "Lou, you got him [signed]?" He said, "Not yet." I told him to get it [done] or he would be looking for work. Those other catchers were legit, but they weren't Pudge. He was only 150, 160 pounds, at the most, but he had a loose, live arm, great hands and he could swing the bat. I'd like to say how smart I was to find a Hall of Famer, but we backed into that one.

MLB.com: But you had success over the years in the Latin countries.

Johnson: Well, I originally signed with the Pirates, and every team I was on, the best players were Latins. Plus, I grew up in Los Angeles, and there was a strong Latin influence there. Then I had Luis in San Diego and Texas. In San Diego, we signed Benito Santiago, Ozzie Guillen, Sandy Alomar, Candy Sierra. Then in Texas, we were busy in the Latin countries: Pudge, Juan Gonzalez, Sammy Sosa, Wilson Alvarez. We can go on.

MLB.com: Did the tight budgets in Texas make you more inclined to go into the Latin market?

Johnson: I will say one thing: [President] Mike Stone and [general manager] Tom Grieve, never turned me down. When we signed Wilson Alvarez, Mike said, "We don't have that much money." It was too late -- I'd already signed him. They said OK, get the job done. We didn't have the money other organizations had, but they believed in what we were doing.

MLB.com: Pudge's first year, he's 17, and you sent him to Class A Gastonia instead of rookie ball.

Johnson: And he held his own. He was named one of the best prospects in the league. The next year, he was at [Class A Advanced] Port Charlotte, and he starts the next year at Double-A Tulsa and we have him in the big leagues by the end of June. He's 19, and [in] his big league debut, he throws out Joey Cora and Warren Newson of the White Sox trying to steal second base. We called him up, and he had to postpone his wedding. He was going to get married, but the season went longer in the big leagues than at Double-A, so he had to adjust.

MLB.com: But that wasn't unusual, was it, for you to send young players to full-season teams?

Johnson: I pushed the good players. I wanted them to be challenged. I wanted them to get at-bats. I wanted to see how they responded. We had [eight] players off that Gastonia team get to the big leagues, and four of them were teenagers, including Pudge and Robbie Nen. Two years earlier, 1987, we had 10 players from Gastonia get to the Major Leagues, including Juan Gonzalez, Dean Palmer, Rey Sanchez, Sammy Sosa, Wilson Alvarez and Roger Pavlik, who were teenagers, too.

MLB.com: It was experience, not stats, that were your concern?

Johnson: Exactly. I wanted position players getting at-bats, and I wanted them hitting up in the order, not seventh, eighth or ninth. If they struggled, that was OK as long as they were hitting in the upper-five spots. And the pitchers, I wanted them throwing innings, facing hitters.

MLB.com: And you didn't have guys stuck at one position.

Johnson: No. You wanted to make sure they had options when they got to the big leagues. You never know where the need is going to be. That's the way I learned in Pittsburgh. We had Gene Michaels, Gene Alley and myself on the same team in the Minors. We'd move around from second to third to short. Gene even pitched at one time.