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Round Rock, Corpus Express Interest in 'Rojo'05/03/2010 5:26 PM ET
from Wire Reports
For the past few years, Billy Ray "Rojo" Johnson has wanted nothing more than a second chance at a life that once had such promise. Now, it appears he may get it. His story is the stuff of legend; if he seizes that second chance, a legend is what he could become.
Born in East Texas in 1979, Johnson's trek to a possible Major League career has seen its fair share of twists and turns. His father, oilman Ray Lee Johnson, began working as a consultant for Venezuelan oil companies when the country experienced a jump in oil production profits due to the 1973 Oil Crisis. After years of frequent trips between Texas and South America, Ray Lee moved the family to Venezuela in 1984.
It was in Venezuela that Billy Ray Johnson developed two things that have stuck with him to this day: a love of baseball and his nickname. By age 15, Johnson was known throughout Venezuela for a blazing fastball and a blazing temper. Teammates dubbed him "Rojo" as a play off his name, but many people suggested the nickname had more to do with his temper that seemed to echo his fiery red hair.
Just when his future seemed bright, Johnson's life began to crumble. Despite being considered by many to be the best youth pitching prospect in Venezuela, Johnson was not allowed to play for the Venezuelan 16-and-Under National Team due to his heritage.
Johnson's temper got the best of him as he unleashed a tirade in the Venezuela National Baseball Team offices, threatening harm to anyone in his sight. After trashing the offices, Johnson was physically removed from the premises. The next day, he returned with a soda bottle filled with his own urine and threw it through a window at the Venezuela Baseball offices.
Two months later, Johnson's mother, Kay, died after being bitten by a poisonous snake while on an expedition in the Amazon. Absent his mother and living with a father immersed in the oil business, Johnson began to run with the wrong crowd.
While working odd jobs on the side, Johnson continued to play baseball. Shortly after being snubbed by the Venezuela National Team, "Rojo" began playing in the Venezuela winter leagues. The 16-year-old quickly became the league's most dominating pitcher.
However, Johnson struggled to remain with any team as he continually was suspended due to fighting with opponents, umpires and even his own teammates. Oddly enough, especially after the death of his mother, stories of "Rojo" keeping various reptiles in his locker also started to surface.
American baseball scouts began to hear of Johnson through players arriving in Major League Baseball from Venezuela. By his late teens, "Rojo" was known throughout the professional baseball scouting circuit. Despite Johnson's obvious ability, Major League organizations were leery of his personal life, his reputed temper and his refusal to undergo therapy.
One of the world's greatest baseball talents was stuck in the dead-end situation of an inability to overcome himself.
Ray Lee Johnson moved back to Texas in 1996. His only child, Billy Ray, remained in Venezuela against his father's wishes. A few years later, "Rojo" visited his father in rural Sabine County, Texas, to make peace.
But it was more than just a family visit for Billy Ray; it was a business trip, as well. Two days after his arrival in Texas, "Rojo" was taken into custody by authorities. Government officials had built a case against Johnson, who was linked to the illegal importation of countless species of reptiles, including various types of rare snakes, lizards, iguanas, turtles and galliwasps.
In the spring of 2000, Johnson was found guilty and sentenced to serve time in an undisclosed prison.
Soon after his incarceration, Johnson was reintroduced to his first love - baseball. Pickup games in the prison yard were common, and "Rojo" soon began to showcase his natural-born talent. But his temper still remained an issue.
Now, as his release date approaches, scouts and baseball officials have begun to take a look at "Rojo" one more time.
Recently, Texas Rangers President and Baseball Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan was asked about the legend of "Rojo" Johnson.
"Sure, I've heard of him," Ryan said. "He's quite the story, that's for sure. We'd be interested. No doubt about it. Quality pitching is pretty tough to come by these days. We might have to go after him just to keep someone else from snagging him up."