by David Driver
Special Correspondent to ABC Newspapers
Baltimore – Dan Johnson began the 2013 baseball season in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, Pa., playing for the top minor league team of the New York Yankees in the International League.
But he ended the year in the middle of the major league playoff race, as a reserve first baseman and designated hitter for the Baltimore Orioles.
“I signed with the Yankees in the off-season and I thought I had a pretty good opportunity over there, but obviously it didn’t work out,” said Johnson, a graduate of Blaine High School and a resident of Ham Lake.
“So with a few days left in the (minor league) season I decided to take my out [contract option]. I tried to see the best opportunity for me to come over and help a team win.”
The left-handed hitter was not called up to the Yankees this season.
Johnson was signed by the Orioles in late August and assigned to their top farm team, the Triple-A Norfolk Tides, also in the International League. After the Norfolk season was over and the big league rosters expanded his contract was purchased Sept. 13 by the Orioles.
“I love it,” said Johnson, sitting his locker in the Orioles’ clubhouse. “It is an awesome experience with the guys in the clubhouse and to see how things are run here. I have really enjoyed my last week or so and we will see where it goes from there.”
Johnson is no stranger the playoff race in the American League East, as he was part of the Tampa Bay organization for several years.
“It is exciting. It is one of those things: for the past few years I have found myself in the middle of the playoff race. I will take my experience and help contribute to this team,” Johnson said.
By joining the Orioles, Johnson got a first-hand look at major league home run leader Chris Davis. The left-handed slugger had a major league-high 52 homers through Sept. 24.
“It is truly amazing the way he goes up there and the power he has,” said Johnson, who was in the starting lineup Sept. 24 against Toronto as the designated hitter at Camden Yards. “It has been fun to watch. I have seen three homers. This guy is really going. If you watch his at bats and how tough they pitch him, he is not sneaking up on anybody.”
Johnson had just one official at bat with the Orioles before he started at designated hitter for Baltimore at home Sept. 24 to begin a three-game series with the Toronto Blue Jays. The Orioles began the night needing a win to keep their slim playoff hopes alive.
Johnson was in the starting lineup at designated hitter and batted eighth in the order for manager Buck Showalter.
He came to bat in the second inning with the bases loaded but flew out to right field against Toronto right-handed starter Todd Redmond.
Johnson ended the night hitless in four at bats as the Orioles lost, 3-2, in 10 innings to the Blue Jays. The loss, along with a win by Cleveland over the White Sox, eliminated the Orioles from post-season play this season.
Johnson was born Aug. 10, 1979 in Coon Rapids and graduated from Blaine High School. He played in college at Butler and Nebraska and was drafted by Oakland in the seventh round in 2001.
He made his big league debut with the A’s in 2005 and was with Oakland through April 2008, when he was selected off waivers by Tampa Bay. Johnson hit 18 homers with Oakland in 2007.
Johnson hit just .119 in 84 at bats with two homers in 2011 – his last season with Tampa Bay.
He signed as a free agent with the Chicago White Sox prior to the 2012 season and hit .364 with three homers in just 22 at bats for the Chicago White Sox in 2012. He also hit 28 homers for Triple-A Charlotte, the top farm club of the White Sox, in 2012.
Johnson hit 21 homers this year at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre before he was signed by the Orioles. He hit .154 in 13 at bats for the Norfolk Tides, the top Baltimore farm club, before he joined the big league club. Johnson has 221 minor league home runs in 1,151 at bats in his career.
Johnson will head back to his home in Minnesota after this season as his wife, Holly, is expecting their fourth child in November. He has a batting cage in his home and will work out there in preparation for the 2014 season.
Johnson would welcome the chance to be with the Orioles in spring training come February in Sarasota, Fla. “To be with the team at the beginning and see the core of guys here, that would be a great fit and a great opportunity,” he said. “We will see what works out best for the team and go from there.”
Editor’s note: David Driver is a freelance writer in Maryland who has covered the Orioles for 20 years. He has contributed to Baseball America and mlb.com and can be reached at www.davidsdriver.com