None of this was supposed to happen- but Elliot Johnson persevered to make it so. He went undrafted out of high school but decided to forego college to became a rare high school free agent and sign with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. He faced long odds to make the major leagues- but just two years later he fought through a hamstring injury to made Baseball America’s top 30 Rays prospects list. He hit .262 with 6 homers and 43 stolen bases in 126 games his first full pro season in 2004, and suddenly he was considered a legitimate prospect. He came through with a big 2006 at Double-A, hitting .281 with 15 homers, 10 triples, and 20 stolen bases in 122 games, and his career looked at promising as ever. But then Johnson fell apart in 2007 in his first exposure to Triple-A, managing just a .207/.285/.341 line. He recovered to make the major leagues the next year, but he became much better known for bowling over Francisco Cervelli in a spring training game and breaking Cervelli’s wrist and then he wound up getting sent down after just 7 MLB games. Johnson proceeded to have just a mediocre year at Triple-A in 2008, and it seemed like he was doomed to be a Quad-A player with those 7 MLB games being the only ones in which he would ever appear. His situation only got worse as his 2009 season was marred by injuries.
Finally in 2010, Johnson broke through, managing a .319/.375/.475 line with 11 homers and 30 stolen bases in 109 Triple-A games, and he had played well enough to earn a spot on the Rays’ major league roster for 2011. Unfortunately for Johnson, though, his opportunity went for naught as he hit just .194 and once again dealt with injuries and his career was on the fringes once again. But in 2012, injuries gave Johnson a chance to start in the majors leagues for the first time and he had his shining moment in professional baseball, hitting .275 with 4 home runs and 15 stolen bases for the Rays in the first half of 2012. Although Johnson slumped badly in the second half, that strong performance for a time will give him another chance in the major leagues even after the Rays designated him for assignment yesterday. If Johnson keeps playing well, 2012 will go down as the turning point of a solid major league career. And Johnson earned it entirely.
Elliot Johnson fought through a humble start to his career, various injuries, and multiple seasons of nearly unremitting frustration to carve out a major league career for himself. Is Elliot Johnson a great player? Absolutely not. Did he frustrate Rays fans constantly last season with his struggles at the plate and in the field? Everyone would tell you that the answer to that question is yes. But he’s done everything within his power to seize the opportunities that he’s been given and become the best player he possibly could be. He’s no superstar athlete that we could never associate with- he’s just a regular guy who went all-out in pursuit of his dream and found a way to become successful. In the scheme of things, Elliot Johnson will go down as a forgettable player in Rays history except for his infamous incident with Cervelli. But his story is an inspiration to all of us and shouldn’t fade away as Johnson leaves town.