I wish I had been a baseball fan when Dave Johnson was still pitching. There have been a lot of major league baseball players from Baltimore, some of them among the all-time greats of the game (Cal Ripken, Babe Ruth, and Al Kaline, most notably). But Dave Johnson was truly one of our own. He hailed from Middle River, mere miles from my own childhood home. He attended Overlea High School and Baltimore City Community College, and was not drafted by any team. The Pirates signed him as an amateur free agent in 1982. He pitched in their organization for seven years, getting a brief taste of the bright lights in 1987 at age 27. He was a mop-up guy, and not an impressive one at that; his thirteen hits allowed in six and one-third innings probably shortened his already-brief stay in Pittsburgh. Johnson was finally granted his freedom after a 1988 season spent entirely in the minors, signing with Houston in December. Three months later he was traded to his hometown Orioles just before the start of the new season; the rebuilding Birds had picked him up as insurance. That's where his legend begins.
I've talked about the wonders of the "Why Not?" O's of 1989, but I haven't gone into detail about Dave Johnson's role. He was recalled from AAA Rochester at the beginning of August to provide a fresh arm in a double header against Boston. He lasted into the seventh inning, but gave up five runs to wind up on the wrong end of a 6-2 decision. But a week later, he was given another shot, this time in front of his friends and family in Memorial Stadium in Baltimore. The result was right out of Damn Yankees, as the 29-year-old righthander with 13 major league innings under his belt scattered eight hits, going the distance for a 6-1 victory over the Twins. The win allowed the ragtag Birds to hold on to their slim two-game lead over AL East rival Toronto. His next start was another 6-1 complete-game victory at home; this time he held the Red Sox to six hits. After a rough outing in his fourth start, a 9-2 loss vs. Toronto, he rebounded for his third complete game in four starts at Memorial Stadium, a 4-2 win over the Brewers, who were also nipping at Baltimore's heels. The rest of Johnson's season was up-and-down, but before the year was out he would notch a fourth complete game, tough 3-0 loss to the White Sox. Despite starting just fourteen games, Dave's 4 complete games tied for the team lead with eighteen-game-winner Jeff Ballard.
The following season would prove to be Dave Johnson's only full major league campaign. It was a good one, as he led the O's in wins (13) and again tied for the lead in complete games (3). Once again, all of his CGs were in Baltimore; being so close to home just seemed to give him that extra push. Nearly two decades later, Dave's still a part of the action in Charm City. He helped instruct the team's pitchers during the most recent Spring Training, and he serves as a baseball analyst for the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network and 105.7 WHFS.
During my childhood, I remember sitting in the waiting room at my dentist's office and seeing a glossy photo that hung on the bulletin board. It was a head shot of Dave Johnson in an Orioles uniform; he was a fellow patient. While I recall being somewhat impressed by this fact, it would have resonated with me much more if my love of baseball weren't still a few years away. It's the kind of thing that you don't spend much time thinking about, but I guess baseball players have to get their teeth cleaned too. As you can see above, Dave had a great smile to show for it.