Roy Johnson R.I.P.
On the same day the tragic news of the death of Angels' rookie Nick Adenhart arrived, I received a note from a friend, ex-Expos beat writer Danny Gallagher that former major-league outfielder Roy Johnson had passed away in Mexico of a heart attack back in January at the age of 49. Very few people would remember Johnson and the circumstances of his death were not as dramatic, but 49 is still too young.
Johnson's was almost a tragic life. Selected out of high school in the projects of Chicago in the fifth round of the June 1980 draft, the 6-4, 205 lbs. outfielder had all the raw skills of a major-league star. But he played just 36 major-league games in six years in the Expos' organization, moving on to the White Sox minor-league system, finally establishing himself as a star in the Mexican Leagues.
The reason I remember Johnson so vividly and so fondly is that he was physically intimidating, but personally gentle, humble and naive. He was a lost soul with very little family support in Chicago, which made it difficult to go home in the off-season. That led to lingering problems with drugs.
These were the days when organizations treated many of their young players that found trouble like family. The players, in turn, did not turn to their agents for help as they do today. It was a much closer relationship, so when the Expos realized Johnson was struggling, they tried to help him out.
I recall that the late John McHale, the president and GM at the time, lived in the West Palm Beach area. Instead of sending Johnson back home where he might drift and hang with a bad crowd, McHale found him an apartment near the spring training site and gave him a job on the construction of the Expos' new minor-league complex. The first Christmas Johnson was in town, the late Patty McHale, a marvelous woman and the conscience of the organization, made sure that Roy was invited over for the family's Christmas dinner. Johnson was truly touched.
There were some memorable Roy Johnson stories, stemming from his unique circumstances. That first winter he saw a basketball court on the other side of a chain link fence. He went back to his apartment, got a ball and climbed the fence to shoot some hoops. As he went to climb the fence after he was done, some guys in white jackets came running over to stop him. He had trouble talking his way out of the psychiatric asylum. One day at srping training, Johnson didn't show up for work. Travelling secretary Peter Durso received a call from the Lake Worth police. Roy was in jail. It seemed that he was doing his laundry at a laundromat the night before. He threw his stuff in the dryer and stepped out onto the mean streets of Lake Worth for some fresh air. He started to chat up a young woman on the sidewalk. It turned out she was an undercover cop. His attempt at pleasantries turned into a night in the slammer as his laundry continued to spin dry.
My favourite though was the late Larry Bearnarth's re-telling of the three Johnsons. Bearnarth was managing the AA-Memphis Chicks in 1981. As best I can recall, he had Roy Johnson on first, Wallace Johnson on second and Anthony Johnson batting. Anthony smoked a drive in the air down to the left field corner. Wallace went half way to third. Roy went to second and stopped to make sure the ball dropped in. Anthony broke from the batter's box. In the gloom, the ball looked like it was caught, but it dropped in on the track. Wallace headed back to second, Roy headed back to first where he was passed by Anthony cruising into second. Wallace saw Anthony as he came back to second, then turned and headed to third where he beat the throw. Somehow the batter was on second and the runner was on first. The bases were loaded. The opposing manager was screaming. As Bearnarth recalled the conversation, it went something like this:
Umpire: Who's on second?
Umpire: Who's supposed to be on second?
Umpire: Who's on first?
Umpire: Who's supposed to be on first?
Umpire: Play Ball.
Rest in Peace, Roy.