Image credit: Rockies RHP D.J. Johnson pitched for a dozen teams before making his big league debut (Photo by Four Seam Images)
It was just a couple of minutes on a Sunday afternoon.
D.J. Johnson threw 12 pitches.
But it was the ultimate reward for the ultimate baseball lifer.
At the end of his eighth year in pro ball in which he had pitched for 12 different teams, including two stints with Traverse City of the independent Frontier League, and having spent last winter pitching in Los Mochis in the Mexican Pacific League, Johnson reached lucky 13—the Rockies.
He made his big league debut with one out in the fifth inning of the Rockies’ 9-6 loss to the Dodgers on Sept. 10. At the time, the Rockies were trailing 6-2, and there was a runner on third base. Twelve pitches later, that runner was still on third, the inning was over and the 29-year-old Johnson had struck out both batters he faced.
“It has been a long and winding road to get here,” Johnson said. “There have been a lot of ups and downs.”
There have been, in all honestly, a lot more downs.
Johnson was a first baseman at Western Oregon State, which is far from a baseball hotbed. He finished school in 2009, kicked around some ideas about what he might do to make a living, and then saw a crack in the door to pursuing his passion for baseball.
“I was a pitcher in high school, and the pitching coach at Western Oregon coached a high school all-star team that every year played the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes, a short-season team for the Giants,” Johnson said. “He asked me to pitch a couple innings, just so it wouldn’t be a complete slaughter, and there happened to be a scout for Tampa Bay in the stands. He called my head coach at Western Oregon, and three days later called me asking me if I wanted a job.”
The answer was an emphatic yes. Johnson signed as a nondrafted free agent on June 24, 2010.
And the journey began, even if it was a whole lot different than what Johnson dreamed about during his youth in Portland, Ore.
“It’s something I always wanted to do, but I always thought I’d be a hitter,” he said. “But I wouldn’t have it any other way right now. It’s been a long, crazy journey, and everything that I’ve done up until this point seemed like it was pointless. But now? It’s been worth it.”
Long and crazy journey?
Johnson has pitched in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast and Pioneer leagues. He has pitched for low Class A South Bend, for high Class A Fort Myers and Visalia, and for Double-A affiliates in Arkansas, Chattanooga and Hartford. He reached Triple-A Albuquerque this season, his second in the Rockies’ organization.
In all, he has spent time with six major league organizations. He has been taken in the minor league phase of the Rule 5 draft. He has been released twice and has served two tours in independent ball.
He pitched in Mexico last winter to supplement his income and help take care of his family.
“I wasn’t really focused too much on what I was going to do next year. I was more concerned with what I was going to do this offseason,” he said. “I have plans to play in the Dominican (League), to help support my family. But that’s tough.”
That all changed in September.
Albuquerque’s season ended, and, much to Johnson’s surprise, his big league career began. Finally.
After eight seasons (he didn’t get a job in 2013), in which he appeared in 343 games—only one as a starter—and worked 448 innings for teams in 11 cities, the Rockies called him up.
He had made 56 relief appearances in the Pacific Coast League, compiling a 3-5, 3.90 mark, and in addition to issuing just 15 walks in 55.1 innings, he struck out a career-best 84 batters.
Johnson didn’t discuss the money, but he’ll earn roughly one-sixth of the big league minimum for spending September with the Rockies, which is around $90,000. That’s substantially more than three years of minor league salary combined.
His love affair with baseball, however, was not financially driven, which is underscored by his résumé.
It’s been about pursuing a childhood dream and refusing to accept no for an answer.
“For me, it has been, ‘I’ll keep playing until my arm falls off,’ ” Johnson said, “ ‘or somebody doesn’t want to give me a jersey any more.’ ”