Johnson trying to master art of pitching

Eclectic left-hander bidding for spot in Cardinals' bullpen

(Tom Gannam/AP)

By Kevin T. Czerwinski / MLB.com | February 18, 2006 11:56 AM ET

JUPITER, Fla. -- The big tattoo on Tyler Johnson's left biceps is the first thing you notice as you approach his locker in the Cardinals' clubhouse at Roger Dean Stadium. The vibrant colors which make up the tattoo, though, pale in comparison to the explosion of complexities that lie beneath the work of art.

Johnson, a 24-year-old southpaw trying to make the St. Louis roster this spring as a middle reliever, has a passion for art and music, and the conversation on this sunny Saturday morning begins with the history of the alien invasion depicted on his arm. It quickly weaves its way to Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali, pausing to touch on playing guitar with Oakland ace Barry Zito before finishing up with the original purpose of the encounter -- baseball.

"It's comic book art," Johnson said, rolling up his short sleeve to provide a better view of the arm. "I drew it up with a friend of mine. It's an outer space city and the city's being taken over. It's something I designed three or four years ago. It's me. I'm from Southern California, I live near the beach and it's how I grew up.

"A lot of guys want to check it out. But I'm free and open. I wouldn't want to have it if I didn't want to show it off. I knew I wanted a tattoo and I wanted something no one else had. Maybe it's a little overboard, but I'm into abstract art and colors. It's something I'm fascinated with, so I wanted it to be my own special one. I wanted it to be unique."

The artwork is certainly unique, but no more so than Johnson, who had a wild ride in 2005, beginning the year in Arizona after being taken by Oakland in the December 2004 Rule 5 draft. The A's couldn't keep him on their Major League roster and he was shipped back to the only organization for which he had ever played after being selected in 34th round of the 2000 draft.

The experience of switching organizations, then coming back to St. Louis left Johnson a bit shaken. But he overcame the frenetic beginning of the year to put together a solid season at Triple-A Memphis of the Pacific Coast League. He finished second in the circuit with a career-high 57 appearances, going 2-1 with a 4.27 ERA.

Johnson had seven saves along the way while holding opponents to a .232 batting average. His 77 strikeouts in 59 innings also were impressive, so much so that he got called up to the parent club for a five-game audition late last season. Johnson didn't allow a run in three innings over five appearances and hopes that small snippet was enough to stick in the mind of manager Tony La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan.

"So much happened in such a little amount of time (last spring) that I got overwhelmed and didn't perform too well," said Johnson, who had a 10.80 ERA in 3 1/3 innings over four appearances during which he allowed four hits and six walks. "But I got to see what it was like to fight for a position on a team. And that's what it's about, fighting for that spot and doing the right thing when the right people are watching.

"I was impressed with myself, though, because I didn't let it carry over to the season. I got off to a good start, had a bad middle and finished up with a good ending."

Johnson didn't allow an earned run in his first five appearances last season before running into trouble. He struggled through parts of May and most of June before putting together a stellar July, during which he was 1-0 with four saves and a 1.76 ERA in 12 appearances (15 1/3 innings). He had a 1.26 ERA over his final 24 appearances while holding opponents to a .196 average.

"I just tried to forget about the spring and learn and I ended getting called up at the end of the year," said Johnson, who has an effective curve and low-90s fastball with late movement. "I got to stay for the playoffs and it was a very good experience, getting to sit and watch. I learned a lot because it's a crazy time, so you get to see a lot of things. It was awesome; the outcome wasn't what everyone wanted, but that's why we're here this year, to try and win."

Johnson said that his eyes "were huge" as he watched Roger Clemens pitch during the playoffs. He's always found himself drawn to great pitchers, though, studying Orel Hershiser while growing up a Dodger fan and reading up on Sandy Koufax. Throw in a little Nolan Ryan and Randy Johnson, and the picture is almost complete.

Johnson followed Zito at the outset of his career, so last spring's encounter with the former Cy Young Award winner was beneficial in more than just a musical way. Sure, the duo jammed together when they weren't on the field, but Johnson also picked up a few pitching pointers.

"We talked about curveball grips," said Johnson, a member of the 2002 Midwest League championship team in Peoria and the 2004 Southern League title winners in Tennessee. "His is more dramatic. We talked a little pitching, but it was nothing too crazy. He's a pretty smart guy, so I was all ears. I try to learn from everyone, though.

"Tony (La Russa) loves to have his veteran guys teach the younger guys. It's great because I'm being groomed in the right way as opposed to figuring it out on my own. It may take a little longer, but it sure has its benefits in the end."

So, much like his tattoo, Johnson is hoping to become a conversation piece. He just wants people to know what he can do with his arm and not just what's on it.

Kevin Czerwinski is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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