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Thursday, September 29, 2011

Our own Crash Davis 

Former Durham Bull, Dan Johnson

The Tampa Bay Rays miraculous comeback victory to clinch an American League playoff spot was wildly celebrated in some corners of Durham last night, including Bull McCabe's Irish Pub. Hidden within what will surely be a celebrated Rays win and an unforgettable Red Sox collapse was a huge moment for one long-time Durham Bull, Dan Johnson.

Who is Dan Johnson you ask? (Of course, dear reader, if you are a Bulls regular, you already know the answer, but indulge the rest of us for a moment.) Dan Johnson has played a career 993 minor league games. He has made more than 4,000 minor league plate appearances for squads ranging from Modesto, California to Yokohama, Japan to Vancouver, BC, Canada. Since 2008 he has played 309 games for our own Durham Bulls.

Johnson was terrific in 2010, in his thirties, ancient for a AAA prospect, he hit .300 with 30 homers for the Durham Bulls. The Bulls parent club, the Rays, gave him a chance to start the season in the majors. After all they had parted with their seven highest paid players from the previous season, there were open spots on the roster, why not give Johnson a shot?

Johnson had played a career 300 major league games, most of them in 2005 and 2007 for the Oakland A's. Unfortunately for Johnson, he bombed. He started the season with only nine hits in sixty-four at-bats, a brutal .141 average. He followed that up with 0 for 14 in May and was sent back to Durham posthaste to resume his minor league career.

So when Dan Johnson stepped up to the plate last night, in the bottom of the ninth, with two out, and nobody on, the Tampa Rays trailing by a run, their season hanging in the balance, he hadn't had a major league base hit since April 27th. He was hitting .108 on the season. Johnson had no hits in six at-bats since coming back to the majors ten days ago. At thirty-two years old, it was the biggest at-bat of his career. Once before in the Rays memorable 2008 run to the World Series, which they lost, Dan Johnson had contributed a seemingly miraculous home run.1

Last night, down to the final strike in the season, he did it again. A laser shot down the right field line that tied the game.

Historically, Rays superstar first round draft pick, Evan Longoria, who hit two homers, including the game winner in the bottom of the twelfth, in walk-off fashion, will probably be far more remembered and lauded. People will talk about the Red Sox collapse. The sinking line drive their $142 million dollar leftfielder could have caught to extend the game.

Here in Durham, perhaps we will recall one of our adopted sons, a humble Durham Bull, a ginger haired man from Coon Rapids, Minnesota, Dan Johnson, and his homer that saved the season. This is why we watch sports, for these kind of hair-raising, chill inducing, it is all on the line moments. You're a kid standing in the back yard, bottom of the ninth, two outs, two strikes, one swing to save or end the season.

The Clarion Content, for one, won't forget what happened. We doubt that anyone else still in Bull McCabe's a few minutes before the clock struck midnight will either. Thanks for the memories, Dan!

1Johnson hit an 9th inning game tying home run off Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon after arriving at the ballpark from Durham mid-game. Unfortunately, despite his heroics, he only hit .192 for the Rays in 2008 and was forced to sign-in Japan in 2009 when the club didn't offer him a Major League contract.

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