Rays hero Johnson returns as knuckleballer

March 5th, 2016

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Who can forget Dan Johnson and his historic home runs? Now Johnson wants to get into the business of preventing home runs via a knuckleball.

Johnson, 36, who played parts of 10 Major League seasons and 15 professional seasons overall, is expected to sign a Minor League deal with the Rays, pending a physical. Only now the former corner infielder and outfielder wants to re-invent himself as a knuckleball pitcher.

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"This is something I really wanted to try out, and [it's exciting] being with the Rays again," Johnson said. "It's not the first time I've tried this, but this is the first time I feel like I can take it seriously."

Johnson threw eight bullpens while in the Yankees' farm system in 2013.

"I've been throwing it my whole life," Jonhson said of the knuckleball. "It's one of those things I've done forever, and it's gotten better and better. This is the first time I've actually taken it to the next step of going through the process of being a pitcher."

Rays fans well remember Johnson for hitting two of the most revered home runs in team history.

Both were game-tying shots, and both came as a pinch-hitter. The first came in September 2008, when he homered off Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon in the top of the ninth of a crucial game at Fenway Park. That sent the game into extra innings, when the Rays won.

The other home run came in the famed Game 162 on the final day of the 2011 season. Johnson homered in the bottom of the ninth against the Yankees to send the game into extra innings. Evan Longoria won it with a walk-off homer in the 11th to send the Rays into the postseason.

Johnson said he is committed to the process of becoming a knuckleball pitcher, which means heading to the Minors.

"What else are you going to do?" Johnson said. "I'm into it. It's completely up to the Rays how they want to work it. I'm coming in with an open mind. Send me to the Dominican League. I don't care."

Johnson had no idea about any kind of timeline for his progression, though he did say that, as a competitor, he was ready to pitch now.

Clearly this is an experiment, but why not?

"I think it's good," Rays manager Kevin Cash said. "You're talking about a guy who has had some huge hits for this organization. And he wants to continue his career, and he's willing to take on a new challenge. So I think from an organizational standpoint, everybody's pretty excited, because a lot of special things that have happened with the Rays he's been a large part of."