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Johnson's big personality lit up Minors ballparks

Baseball world mourns COVID-related loss of beloved manager
Ron "RJ" Johnson was 1,752-1,770 over 25 seasons as manager in the Minors. He's Norfolk's winningest manager of all time. (Steven Goldburg/Norfolk Tides)
@JoshJacksonMiLB
February 11, 2021

Over the bulk of the last three decades, Ron Johnson had such an overwhelming and sunny presence as a Minor League manager that he could practically change the weather. "He just lit up a room," said Heather McKeating, who was the Triple-A Norfolk Tides' director of community relations for the

Over the bulk of the last three decades, Ron Johnson had such an overwhelming and sunny presence as a Minor League manager that he could practically change the weather.

"He just lit up a room," said Heather McKeating, who was the Triple-A Norfolk Tides' director of community relations for the entirety of Johnson's seven-year tenure with the team.

"He could light up a room," echoed Todd Jamison, who was broadcaster for the Double-A Portland Sea Dogs during Johnson's two seasons there.

“He had this abundance of energy and joy that you couldn’t help but try to match, and there was no matching it," said David Hall, who covered six of Johnson's Tides clubs for The Virginian-Pilot. "He would come in and you’d look up and he’d say in that loud voice, ‘Dave! What’s up, buddy?’ And the way he said it, it couldn’t be faked. Genuine. He was honestly glad to see the person in front of him. Every time we spent any time together -- and we spent time together a lot -- I felt a little better afterward.”

Johnson, "RJ" to those who knew him, died at age 64 from complications related to COVID-19 on Jan. 26 in a Tennessee hospital near his home, leaving behind his wife Daphne, five children and a sea of heartache in the baseball world. Johnson was one of the most widely and best-beloved figures to work in the Minors this century.

A product of Fresno State, he was drafted by the Royals in 1978. He was 6-foot-3 and played at 215 pounds, and he also logged time in the Expos, White Sox and Tigers systems before hanging up his spikes with 22 big league games under his belt in 1985.

He returned to the Kansas City organization as a Minor League coach the next year and took his first managerial post in 1992. Remaining with the Royals through 1999, Johnson ascended to the helm of their Triple-A club and took five of their teams to the playoffs. He joined the Red Sox in 2000, staying in the system for 12 seasons (Class A Sarasota, 2000-01; Double-A Trenton, 2002; Double-A Portland, 2003-04; Triple-A Pawtucket, 2005-09, Boston's first base coach, 2010-11) before taking the reins for the Orioles-affiliated Tides from 2012-18.

His 409 victories with the Tides make him the winningest manager in that franchise's history. Over his career, he was 1,752-1,770. In 2015, he was International League Manager of the Year, and Baltimore twice presented him with the Cal Ripken Sr. Player Development Award (2015, 2018).

Johnson formed strong bonds at every stop, and in Norfolk he developed a following of fans who excitedly looked for him to do the most noteworthy thing a manager can do during a given baseball game: get ejected. As a matter of policy, if one of Johnson's players was tossed, he would make sure he followed.

“He even got a little tradition going where every time he got run, he threw his hat into the crowd before he went into the dugout," said Tides director of communications Ian Locke, who has worked for the team since 2004. "It got so fans kind of expected it.

"We got used to it, because our clubhouse manager had to go get that hat a bunch of times, because it was his fitted hat for games, so he’d have to go out to the stands with a bunch of brand new hats to exchange. There were a lot of times where I knew I had to watch closely so I could let our clubby know what row the hat landed in.”

Although there were surely times Johnson was ejected because his temper got the best of him, the majority seemed to be pointedly about communicating to his players that he was in their corner no matter what. Hall remembers writing about one incident that illustrated his policy.

“They were on the road, and two of the Tides outfielders were warming up between innings," the scribe recalled. "The outfielders were holding their gloves in front of their chests, and if one of the throws hit the glove without the guy having to move it, the catching player signaled that it was strike. The umpire somehow got the idea that they were making fun of him or mocking him, and he ejected both players.

"RJ went straight out there and said to the umpire, ‘Now you’ve run two of my guys, so you’ve got to run me.’ The ump said, ‘What do you mean? I don’t have to run you.’ I’m cleaning this up a bit, but RJ said, ‘Yes, you do, you blankety-blank! And I’m going to be at the hotel eating a steak, and you’re going to be sending three reports to the league.’”

Johnson developed a tradition of tossing his hat into the stands after being ejected. The Virginian-Pilot

By no means was getting ejected his only, or even most common, way of developing a trusting relationship with his players, though.

“He had a way to express the positive consistently," said Mike Griffin, who was Johnson's pitching coach with Trenton, Pawtucket and Norfolk, as well as one of his closest friends. "If things were rolling in your mind in a way that are negative, he would turn it into positive because of his personality.

"And yet he also had a way about him that if a player was not living up to certain standards, he’d bring that player in, whether it was a position player or pitcher, and he’d ask, ‘Is anything going on? What can I do get you out of this funk a little bit?’ He had their total respect. All the years that I was with him, the players always respected him absolutely.”

Those players included the likes of Hanley Ramirez, Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis, Adam Jones and Zack Britton over Johnson's 25 seasons as manager.

He also managed his own son, Chris Johnson, who arrived in Norfolk in 2017 after 839 big league games with Houston, Arizona, Atlanta, Cleveland and Miami.

“On the third or fourth game, Chris got hit by a pitch and broke his hand, and he missed three months," Locke recalled. "Normally, especially a guy with that much big league time, the player will go home and rehab on their own and you’ll see them again in July or August, if at all. Chris stuck around the whole year. He lived in Norfolk and rehabbed at the ballpark.

Chris and Ron Johnson were part of the same team -- and were once ejected together -- in 2017. Norfolk Tides

"Because of that, Chris’ son, Greyson, RJ’s [toddler] grandson, was around a lot. ... He got to spend that whole summer with his son and grandson, and he never really had that [as his family was] growing up [because of the baseball schedule]. ... RJ had so much fun with Greyson that summer. He had a wagon, like a Radio Flyer, and RJ would take him around our office in a big circle. He would put Greyson in the wagon, and you’d hear his big, booming voice and the wagon rolling up and down office, saying hello, and you’d think, ‘Oh, there’s the manager with his grandson.’”

Johnson created that fun atmosphere at the ballpark even without family members in the house. Whatever the personality, prospect status or level of experience for the player, the skipper found a way to connect and bring out the best performance.

“He used to have a ‘circle of trust’ before games, where he’d get all the players in for a five-minute home room kind of thing," Locke said.

"If BP was at 3:30, the circle would be at, say, 3:20, and he’d go over basic things. ‘The bus is leaving at this time, and BP in Rochester is at this time,’ but also, he’d say, “Hey, so-and-so, real nice job last night. He was behind, 0-2, but he still moved the runner. Let’s give him a round of applause.’ But, also, he told stories. ‘Here’s a situation I was in,’ or, ‘I had this happen to me one time,’ and a lot of times these were stories that were not fit for print, but he had the guys rolling. In July at Triple-A, guys are not always enthused to go out there. When it’s 100 degrees in Southeast Virginia, they’re not excited to be outside, but they were always laughing by the end.”

Orioles assistant athletic trainer Mark Shires, who was the trainer of six of Johnson's Tides clubs and who helped the manager shed around 150 pounds, lost his own dad two years before meeting Johnson and came to see him as a father figure. One of the traits Shires most admired in Johnson was an ability to find genuine connections with just about anybody.

“He’d lived every situation you could think of, and that was what made him unique and why he could relate to all of the players," Shires said, noting that Johnson's new fitness routine became another point of connection. "There was very little they could go through that he didn’t relate to. Being in Triple-A, I was a new father and about a third of the team was new fathers. Him being able to connect about being in Triple-A and trying to support your family, or to having older kids… He had all sorts of relationships.

“The biggest thing was he was much more a manager of people, of relationships. He would always joke that there are plenty of managers out there better than him, but you knew at the end of the day that he had your back and was going to tell it to you straight.”

Buck Showalter, who repeatedly described Johnson as the best Triple-A manager in baseball, once said of him to a local news outfit, “If you don’t want to know his opinion, you better not ask him.”

For Hall, who spent hours in Johnson's office -- sometimes interviewing him for stories, but often simply chatting about life -- that ability to be direct seemed connected to how intrinsically genuine a person Johnson was.

“What struck me about him as a manager was that he was really, really good at it," the reporter said. "He was a born public speaker. He was completely comfortable in his own skin around anybody, and he could talk to anybody. He was really great at managing egos. Not too many players are happy to be in Triple-A. RJ had a way of not only making being with Norfolk fun, but encouraging players to keep working even when things weren’t going so great.”

Griffin, as much as anybody, saw how well Johnson could strike that delicate balance. Because players knew the manager was always honest, it went a long way when, during cold spells, he told them they were sure to turn things around.

"The atmosphere in his clubhouses was phenomenal," the pitching coach said. "We’d always have a game plan before I left the clubhouse to go get our starter ready, a plan of who we need to use, who needs innings, who needs developmental [opportunities]. For him, he always wanted to get a reliever back in right after a bad night. He really liked to get him in there, to start building him back up. It was a way to prove a point: ‘I said you’re going to be fine, and, look, you are fine.’ They loved that. Those players loved that.”

Shires describes Griffin (l) and Johnson as "like Mutt and Jeff. They did everything together for years." Norfolk Tides

Back in 2003, he had a go-to phrase to encourage players to turn the page on missteps.

“If you made a mistake, say there was a ball that went through a player’s legs, he’d say, ‘Hey, stay hot! Way to get in front of ball, and at least you didn’t "olé" it,’" Jamison remembered. "It wasn’t ironic. If you went 0-for-4 with four K’s, he’d say, ‘Stay hot.’ He didn't want anybody to dwell on their mistakes. It was a lighthearted way to tell them to move on. That year we had Kevin Youkilis, and RJ was always pushing on Youk to go even farther with that work ethic. ... But he saw that with every one of his players.

"He was always approachable, whether it was with a big prospect like Youk or Kelly Shoppach or it was the team’s interns. I was in Minor League ball for 13 years, and I had to [make an effort to] get to know the staff sometimes. I worked with people who were [not very] approachable. RJ was the absolute opposite of that. He went out of his way with whoever he was talking to -- an intern, a fan, a player -- to make them feel they were special.”

That remained the case throughout his career. Locke remembers Johnson reaching out from the road late on weekend nights. The public relations man braced himself to hear news of a roster move or perhaps an impending crisis, but most of the time the manager was only calling to chat about a TV show they both enjoyed. McKeating, Norfolk's former director of community relations, formed a tight friendship with Johnson and his family over the years, and one of her fondest memories of him is from one of the last events she did with the Tides before changing jobs -- a Ladies Day at Harbor Park.

"It was meant to be for women to come out and play baseball with the players," she said. "I said [to Johnson], 'The only thing I need is, can you come up to the restaurant for a few minutes while we have a wine hour?' He walked in and the room just absolutely lit up. They loved him. They ate him up. He was so funny and so charismatic, and he stayed much longer than he needed to.

"He could have been having a bad day, but you would never know because he always showed how much he cared about other people."

His family was at the top of that list, which facilitated his bonds with folks from all walks of life -- whoever you were, Johnson was eager to exchange stories of family life with you, maybe taking out his phone to show you the latest pictures from home. It was, in that sense, a blessing when the Orioles parted ways with Johnson following the 2018 season. Still, those close to him are heartsick that his time with his family was cut short.

“He was contemplating retirement for a little bit, and then he kind of got moved out," Shires said. "But he was calling me the next Spring Training and talking about how much he loved being home. He missed being around baseball and us, but was very happy being home. I talked to him at length in late October or early November, and he reiterated how much he loved being with his family. He was more than happy with where he was with his life. It’s unbelievably tragic that it ended like that, that he didn’t get more time with his family, but he was happy with where he was.”

Griffin is taking consolation in focusing on the positive times, which is what Johnson likely would have encouraged him to do.

“He was a great man," the pitching coach said. "I was blessed to know him all those years I was with him. He was just a fantastic person. ... I’ve had the pleasure of being around some phenomenal managers, but he will go down for me as not only a great manager, but a great friend.

“It’s a shock. You get through it. His memory. That’s what I’m holding onto. His memory.”

Josh Jackson is an editor for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter @JoshJacksonMiLB.