By Tracy Ringolsby
December 7, 2005
Sandy Johnson was 29. His baseball playing career had hit a dead end. He was delivering mail on a fill-in basis, and scouting on a part-time basis for the Seattle Pilots in the late 1960s.
Then the phone rang. Bobby Mattick, who was running the scouting and player development departments for the Pilots, wanted Johnson to manage the franchise’s Rookie-level team. Johnson jumped at the opportunity, spending three years managing in the Pilots (and then Brewers) system.
“I was a broken-down minor league player with Pittsburgh, headed to the real world as an uneducated kid from L.A. when Bobby hired me,” Johnson said. “I owe everything to him.”
Johnson has repaid the late Mattick in the best way possible. Johnson has been a credit to baseball.
From player to minor league manager to scout to front-office decision-maker, he has risen to be among the elite scouting executives in the game, the most influential man in Latin America of his era, and someone who never forgot how he got his chance. That’s why over the years he has tried to open doors to as many “broken down minor league players” as possible, discovering nearly as many future executives as future players.
He's had the kind of track record that makes him an easy choice for the Roland Hemond Award for long-term contributions to scouting and player development.
“Getting awards, that's not what makes things special, but with something like this, being linked forever with Roland Hemond, that is when you start to feel you've done something right,” said Johnson, now a special assistant with the Mets who formerly worked with Hemond in Arizona. “Roland is such a special person. It's humbling to have people mention you in regards to him.”
Johnson himself has proven special over the years, with a scouting track record that has seen him involved with the signing of 17 eventual all-stars. Even more significant has been his success in Latin America, where he was instrumental in the careers of Ozzie Guillen, Roberto and Sandy Alomar, Carlos Baerga, Benito Santiago, Juan Gonzalez, Pudge Rodriguez, Sammy Sosa and Wilson Alvarez, to name a few.
Johnson said it was natural for him to be drawn to Latin players. He grew up in a part of Los Angeles with many Latin American immigrants, and then signed with the Pirates at the age of 17.
“I mean, when you were with the Pirates back then, the best players on every team you were on were Cubans or Dominicans or Puerto Ricans,” he said. “Having grown up where I did, it seems like I was always taking Latin players under my wing and helping them adjust. I was someone in the states who could communicate with them.
“All of us wanted to make it to the big leagues, but those kids would come up here and had some passion for the game.”
Johnson was considered a decent prospect when he signed with the Pirates in 1958 but says he reached his peak a bit too soon.
“Willie Stargell and I were teammates in 1959 and both hit seven home runs. The next year, I went to Dubuque and hit 17, and Willie was in Grand Forks and hit 13 or 14,” he said. “We were both 6-foot-1, 165 pounds. Three years later, I was still 6-1, 165, but Willie was 6-4, 234.”
Johnson made the move into scouting after the 1972 season at the urging of Jim Wilson, then the general manager of the Brewers. Two years later, Wilson took over at the Major League Scouting Bureau and Johnson went with him.
Johnson got his first chance as a scouting director in 1992 with the Padres, where one of his first selections was a pitcher from Brigham Young named Kevin Towers. Four years later he moved on to Texas. Acting on the recommendation of Brian Lamb, one of his scouts, he hired a youngster who had been selling perfume in Manhattan to oversee scouting in the Dominican Republic. Today, Omar Minaya is Johnson's boss with the Mets.
“Every now and then I have to remind him how he got started,” Johnson said with a smile.
There was a time when Johnson was considered general manager material, but he admits the role didn't fit his personality. He was always a loner, looking for ways to beat the other guy in the search for talent, far from the politics of the front office.
He said once that when he flew in for an interview, the executive who met him at the airport wanted to know if Johnson brought his golf clubs. The plan was to hold the interview at the golf course.
“I'm not your man,” Johnson remembered saying, deciding to immediately get a flight back home. “I'm an old-line guy. I don't play golf.”
No. He just finds talent.
“What I enjoy most is being out in the field looking for players,” he said. “Where have I had my best hits? In Latin America, where you have to get out and find the players. That's the most fun for me, finding the players. I treasured being in the middle of nowhere looking for a good player.”
More often, he found them. There was the day in Puerto Rico when he had his Latin coordinator, Luis Rosa, set up a workout for outfield prospect Juan Nieves.
“There's this little kid catching,” recalled Johnson, “and about midway through the workout, (scout) Doug Gassaway comes running in raving about the catcher. He's telling me the catcher is throwing the ball back to the mound 90 miles an hour. Doug's got his radar gun on the dang catcher. I started watching the kid and we told Luis to keep an eye on him. When he could sign we wanted him.”
That little kid was Ivan Rodriguez.
But for Johnson, he found the real value of a life in baseball three springs ago when he faced a battle for his life, in a Tucson hospital because of what has since been diagnosed as overproduction of adrenaline. There were flowers and calls and cards from a Hall of Fame list of players and executives, including several cards from Pat Gillick.
“That really hit me,” Johnson said. “We'd been going head-to-head for a couple of decades. I don't think we ever had a real conversation, but all of a sudden I'm laying there in a hospital bed, reading these cards and I realized that he respected me as much as I respected him.”
At this point, it is hard to imagine a baseball executive who does not respect the work that Johnson has done in his distinguished career.