One of my fondest memories of the 2008 season - and there are many - was when a young Ray infielder bowled over the Yankees' catcher (Francisco Cervelli) at a play at the plate during Spring Training. The Yankees were furious, but in my mind, it showed that the Rays were coming into the season with a new attitude. They weren't going to be intimidated by the Yankees any longer, and were going to play with fire and aggressiveness.
After being mired in Triple-A for the last four seasons, that infielder (now turned super-utility player) is looking to crack the season with the Rays. Elliot Johnson has waited patiently, and now that the Rays have openings on their bench, he's next in line for a role in the majors.
Elliot and his wife Nicole (who writes at The Life of a Baseball Wife) were gracious enough to answer some questions with us recently. They offer a glimpse into the life of a long-time minor leaguer and their family, which I hope you find as interesting as I did.
Questions with Elliot:
DRB: What were your feelings staying down in Durham for most of the past four seasons?
EJ: It's been tough you know, I had a miserable season in 07' so I didn't get called up that year, but after that the Rays became one of the best in all of baseball which makes it harder to be a big league player. I made the team in 08' out of spring training, but headed right back to Durham after a month of time with the Rays. I thought I was headed back in September, but it didn't happen because they said I didn't force them to call me with a great season. In 09' I lost out on a bunch of opportunities with injuries to Iwamura and Bartlett getting hurt at the same time because literally a few days before they both got hurt, I broke my thumb and had to rehab for 8 weeks in Port Charlotte. 2010 was my best season ever and I honestly feel like I was the best short stop in all of minor league baseball. My numbers speak for themselves. You can line them up to anyone and I felt/feel as though it's in black and white that I am the most major league ready short stop in the minors. So I had that season and felt like I forced a call up but it didn't happen and that was frustrating because I did all I could do to get a call up and it still didn't happen.
As far as playing in Durham for the Bulls, it's been great. Charlie Montoyo has been my manager for the past six seasons so I know what he wants and we work well together. The Bulls organization is great and treat me like family. They allow me do lessons in the off season at the stadium and ask for nothing in exchange. If they have a player appearance that they would like for me to do or something like that, then I obviously scratch their backs back for them. The Bulls allowing me to do the lessons has provided a job for me to do in the off season to bring in an income when I'm not making one from the Rays and is way better than any other off season job I've had, that's for sure. Finding work in the off season for a high school graduate with no college degree is no fun... zero fun. Ever been to a temp agency? I have, multiple times.
DRB: What has been the biggest development in your game since your last stint in the big leagues?
EJ: My biggest development in my game has to be my shortstop play. When I was in the big leagues, I had only played in a handful of professional games at short. We had a guy by the name of BJ Upton playing short during the time when I was in the minors, so they developed me as a second baseman and we all know how that played out. So I only started playing short regularly late in the '09 season.
DRB: With Fernando Perez, Desmond Jennings and yourself, Bulls games often resembled a track meet. Did you have a green light to run at will in Durham?
EJ: Charlie is actually a little conservative when it comes to stealing bases believe it or not. He wants us to run sure, but he doesn't want us to be reckless. I ran very little when lefties hit and that was most of the time because Dan Johnson and Chris Richard hit behind me. Charlie pretty much doesn't love the stolen base with a lefty up due to the hole between first and second that is opened up for them with the first baseman holding me on. Also, while on second he doesn't love stealing third either because he feels the throw is easier for the catcher to make to third if trying to steal and it is. So my best chance was to steal with Justin Ruggiano hitting being right handed and he is an aggressive hitter to say the least. I had plenty of opportunities to steal, but I would say that with Charlie's style it has made me a lot more picky when to run and that's probably why my success rate was so high.
DRB: As a man of many gloves, you have proven capable at a number of positions -- but which is your favorite to play?
EJ: Shortstop is by far the best position on the field. You are involved on every play and it's the most challenging and that's probably why I like it so much. Also, if you can play there it makes you a ton more marketable and valuable. You have to have sure hands, a good arm and good range to play and stay there. It really keeps you involved in the game watching pitch selection by the catcher and pitcher as well as hitter's swings and adjustments at the plate so you can position yourself accordingly.
DRB: Also, have you ever dabbled in any other sports? If yes, are you required to play every position in those as well?
EJ: I played and was recruited to play football and basketball in high school, but I wasn't really fit for those sports. I was way too skinny to play football, but I was really fast so that made up for it. I only weighed 145 lbs as a senior in football, but I ran a 4.4 forty so I was usually the fastest man on the field for a small school football league. We only had 99 kids in my graduating class. I was actually on every team in football. I played receiver on offense and corner back on defense, as well as some role on every special teams play including punter but it wasn't required. I think I hold the record for shortest punt ever at one yard... seriously.
Basketball I got pretty good at it after high school. I was good at defense because I was so quick, but I couldn't and still can't shoot very well. My best friend was 5'10" in 6th grade and I still hadn't made it past 5' so I had to learn how to shoot threes early on and developed poor shooting mechanics as a result of being too weak to get it there from 20 feet. At least that's what I think did it. After high school I made a dunk video and then put it on the web, but after all the hate-mail I received, I took it down. Nobody can believe that a 6' white guy can do a alley-oop windmill with two hands, or a number of other difficult dunks especially if they can't.
DRB: Best road trip story from the minors you can repeat in front of your wife? Worst road trip story?
EJ: I don't really have a best road trip story, but in 04' I hit 4 home runs in four consecutive at bats, in four consecutive innings, never before has that been done in baseball. I hit one the night before in the last inning and then hit one in the first, second and third inning the next day and that was on the road in Greensboro.
My worst road trip story was probably in 07' when Ottawa was still in the league. We were up early as usual around 3:30 or so for a 4:00 bus to go to the airport and when we got through security we found out that our plane to our connecting flight had engine trouble so we had to figure out how we were going to get to Ottawa for the game that night. We ended up breaking our team up into the "starters" and the rest of the guys. So the guys that were starting got on the flights that were going to get there early and the extra guys and relief pitchers got broken up again into another group. We got there around 4:00 or 5:00 with the first group, but the rest of the guys didn't make it until around 7:00 (game time) and the third not until later than that. They ended up canceling the game, but all the rushing, uncertainty and trouble made for such a long and miserable day.
Questions with Nicole:
DRB: I noticed the tagline on your website: "The trials of being married to America's favorite game." What's the life of a minor league baseball wife like? It doesn't sound easy, especially with a little one at home.
NJ: It's definitely different than people would imagine. The media portrays the lifestyle of sports wives as cushy and glamorous. While for some it is, the majority of sports wives aren't living that kind of lifestyle. These women spend time away from the person they love, they move around the country at a moment's notice, and they are subjected to the instability of working in the game on a daily basis. All of us wonder where we will be in a few years.
There are highs and lows, just like in everyone else's lives, but they are just different. Having a child, or children, definitely changes your perspective on things, as well. Things like financial security become more important, and traveling is harder. It's awesome, though, to get to take your kid to daddy's game and teach them to yell "Go Daddy!"
DRB: How supportive are baseball wives with each other? Do you develop a sense of comradery with other wives? When Elliot has moved levels, has that made for tough personal transitions?
NJ: Very supportive. We are the only people that completely understand each other. When you are in a new city, you have a whole group of girls that are in the same position as you. When you get called up, sent down, released, or whatever happens to you, there is another girl that has been there and can help you through it. Baseball Chapel also connects me to wives that share the same religious beliefs as me, as well, and helps form a common bond with some of the girls.
Elliot has hardly moved levels while I've been with him. When we were dating/engaged, he was at AA, but I didn't stay with him for the season, so most of my "baseball life" has been spent at AAA. Baseball relationships grow a lot stronger when you see each other everyday. When you end up on different teams, you tend to grow apart. There are some girls I have met through baseball that I will be friends with for life. I feel like I don't even have to explain a single feeling or thought about baseball to them, because they already know.
DRB: Do you like baseball? I know my wife isn't particularly fond of it, yet still gets subjected to game after game after game.
NJ: I like to watch Elliot play baseball. I used to want to work in baseball, before I met Elliot. I wanted to do it because I liked sports, but I felt like I could conduct business during a game and not miss much because the game is so slow. Now that I know a lot more about it, and I know the people on the field personally, it's fun to watch them play. You won't catch me just watching a game on TV that doesn't involve my husband, though.
DRB: Elliot makes the Rays this season, how will that affect things from your point of view? Will you see him less? More? Do you plan on moving, or staying in your current home?
NJ: If Elliot makes the Rays, we'll be in St. Pete with him. We will keep our home in Durham for the offseason, but we'll spend the season in Florida.
Blake (our son) and I will see him more. Players have their own hotel rooms on road trips in the Big Leagues (as opposed to paying to have your own room in the minor leagues), and bigger cities make flights easier to get and less expensive.
DRB: What are three things someone should do when they visit Durham?
Elliot: Watch a Bulls game. Watch a Duke basketball game. Eat at Bocci's off of Fayetteville Road and order the Chicken Scarpariello or Chicago Style pizza.
Nicole: Besides watching a Durham Bulls game (of course),
- Take in a Duke Basketball game. It's a great experience, and the student section is so fun to watch!
- Watch a Broadway show at the DPAC (Durham Performing Arts Center). They just opened the center a couple years ago, and it's really nice.
- Eat! There are tons of great restaurants here. My favorites include Bocci (Italian), El Rodeo (Mexican), and Madhatters (Coffee, Baked Goods).
Thanks again to Elliot and Nicole for taking the time to share with us!