BRIDGEPORT, Conn. - A 1st baseman by trade, Dan Johnson has 15 years of professional baseball experience (including one with the Yankees) and 443 games of major-league experience under his belt. Yet, at the Ballpark at Harbor Yard on Wednesday morning, the 36-year-old did something he's never done before: stand on the mound and pitch.
Okay, you may be saying, so the Bridgeport Bluefish had to use a position player to pitch, which is something that happens a handful of times per season - but this was not the case, for Johnson was the starting pitcher for Game 1 of Bridgeport's doubleheader against Somerset.
"Dan has been working very hard the last few weeks on his knuckleball," Bluefish manager Luis Rodriguez said in the team's press release the day before announcing the start, "and we're excited to see him execute it in his first professional start here in Bridgeport."
Yes, you read Rodriguez's words right: Dan Johnson, he of the 2 Triple-A MVP Awards as a 1st baseman and author of one of the most important HRs in Tampa Bay Rays history, is now a pitcher specializing in the knuckleball.
It's a phenomenon he's toyed with his whole life, but the thought of doing it in the pros ramped up while he was with the Yankees' Triple-A team in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in 2013.
"We were sitting in the clubhouse one day, and it was raining, and it was the kind of day where you feel like you're in the clubhouse forever," Johnson said. "(Then-Yankees pitching coordinator) Gil Patterson came up to me and said, 'you're going to think I'm crazy, but would you come out and throw a bullpen?' I said sure, because what have I got to lose, and after watching me, he told me it might be something I needed to take more seriously."
Johnson ended up throwing a bunch of bullpens with the RailRiders, but by the time it was decided to try his hand in a game, he had been released and signed with Baltimore. That put things on the back burner a bit, but when Johnson signed with Toronto in 2014, there was a bit of an ulterior motive.
"They knew about my knuckleball, and R.A. Dickey was there, so I picked his brain as much as I possibly could," Johnson recalls.
However, once again, the idea got put on the back burner, because as Johnson recalls, attempting to fix a stuck plate on a weight machine during Spring Training resulted in a finger injury and the loss of one of his fingernails.
"It was crazy, but I wasn't able to throw it for like 3 months," he remembers. "I threw a couple times later in the season (at Triple-A Buffalo), though, and they had interest in me going to instructs and pursuing it, but at that time it had been such a long season that I felt I needed to get back home and get some rest and see my family."
The prospect of pitching once again stayed dormant as Johnson played for the Reds and Cardinals in 2015, but once the Rays hired Charlie Haeger - an ex-MLB knuckleballer himself - as a pitching instructor with the intent to convert select players into knuckleballers, Johnson got the call.
He signed a 2-year deal with the Rays last winter, but once again, the injury bug struck.
"I hurt my arm my third bullpen in, so I was rehabbing pretty much the whole time I was there, but for me to get healthy, the doctors said I had to take time off, so that was just going to put me further and further behind," Johnson said.
He also wanted to still play some first base and hit while completing the conversion, but the Rays weren't going to allow that, and eventually released Johnson from his deal at the end of March.
"The plan was until I learned how to pitch, I wasn't allowed to hit, even though I wanted to do both," Johnson said. "They know the workload is a lot more as a pitcher, but once I got hurt, I knew not being able to hit either wasn't going to be beneficial. When I felt like I was starting to get better and could throw, the option was to go to independent ball so I could get some work in."
And thus, that's how Johnson ended up signing with the Bluefish, one of eight teams in the independent Atlantic League of Professional Baseball, and coming to work with Bridgeport pitching coach Jesse Litsch, who fans may remember as a pretty successful sinker-baller with the Toronto Blue Jays from 2007-2011.
"He's why I came here; I can throw a knuckleball and take the spin off the ball, but what I needed to learn was mechanics," Johnson said. "Getting on the mound and being able to repeat isn't the easiest thing to do, so I needed him to teach me how to throw with mechanics so I can repeat it over and over and over. I've faced (Litsch) before, and prior to me coming here, I talked to him, and knowing he was doing some developmental stuff in China and that he was going to be here to help me was a big plus."
So far, so good up until Tuesday, when the Bluefish announced that Johnson would finally take the mound a day later.
"It's a lot of learning; I've worked a lot, and I don't know if I have the velocity back yet, but I'm getting the mechanics down, and the feedback is that I'm getting a lot better," Johnson said. "I'm starting to get the mechanics down and feel more comfortable with that, and hopefully, I can get by with what I've got until my arm is fully healed and I get my velocity all the way back."
The results of his first start were mixed; Johnson's line was 3 runs on 2 hits with 5 walks and 2 strikeouts in 3 innings, but much of the damage came in the 1st and Johnson settled down after allowing 3 walks and throwing a wild pitch in that frame.
He'll get another chance on the mound soon, but he got right back on the field immediately after his 1st start, playing the 2nd game of Wednesday's doubleheader as the designated hitter - and even in just doing that, he now understands why the Rays didn't want him to do both while he learned to pitch.
"I didn't know the pitcher's workload, so I thought I could do both, but I've learned exactly what that's like here," he laughed. "I'll throw a bullpen, and then I play the game, and I'm exhausted by the middle of the game. It's a lot of work when you're playing and throwing full bullpens, especially at my age!"