There are dozens of minor league lifers playing ball at Triple-A in the International League and the Pacific Coast league. Most of them have given up on a lengthy career in the big leagues and play for the love of the game, a chance at a few days on a major league roster, and just a little bit of money. A perfect example is minor league home run king Mike Hessman. Hessman has had cups of coffee in the big leagues with the Atlanta Braves, the Detroit Tigers, and the New York Mets over five different seasons. He signed one guaranteed big league contract and that was for $300,000. On the flip side, he has spent 18 seasons in the minors, including twelve in Triple-A.
Dan Johnson has had a similar but slightly more interesting career. Rays fans will remember Johnson as one of the heroes of the 2008 playoff run. Johnson was called up from Durham in the middle of a key series with Red Sox. He literally took a cab from the airport and was inserted into the game as a pinch hitter in the ninth inning with two outs. He hit a monster blast that tied the game and the Rays went on to win the game in extra innings. They moved into first place, never looked back and won the division title.
Johnson was once a prospect with the Oakland Athletics and played 419 games over four seasons with the A’s. He had a .249/.338/.409 slash line in Oakland, including 18 home runs in 2008. Placed on waivers by the A’s in 2008, he was picked up by the Rays, spent a year in Japan in 2009 and returned to Rays in 2010 to set up yet another big moment. On September 28, 2011, Johnson once again hit a pinch-hit home run in the ninth inning to tie up Game 162 against the New York Yankees. The Rays went on to win on an Evan Longoria home run in extra innings. As Rays fans remember well, the win, coupled with a Red Sox loss, put the Rays in the playoffs as a wild card.
The big moment isn’t the only difference between Johnson and many Triple-A veterans. Another is the way he keeps clawing his way back the majors. Every year since he resigned with the Rays in 2010, he has his contract selected by a major league team. The Rays bought his contract in 2010 and 2011, the Chicago White Sox did so in 2012, and the Orioles followed suit in 2013. The other difference is that he has actually made some good money in his career. The A’s paid him a little over $1 million over three years, the Rays $1.5 million over two years and his contract with the Japanese team was for $1.2 million. Add in Triple-A contacts that guarantee ex-big leaguers more money than the rest and big league money during call-ups, and Johnson has made about $5 million in his fourteen-year career.
On July 10, 2014, Dan Johnson once again returned to the show. The Blue Jays purchased his contract and he was the designated hitter against none other than the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field. Known as a boom or bust guy, Johnson drew four walks and scored three runs as the Blue Jays beat the Rays. He did not deliver a ninth inning homer, but it was still a magic moment.
You have to love a guy like Dan Johnson. He keeps on playing and hoping for a few days in the big league, and he keeps getting chances because everyone knows that he may have another flash in brilliance in store. I’ll be rooting for you, Dan.