I have all the respect in the world for Juan Toribio, MLB.com’s beat writer for the Tampa Bay Rays. He has provided stellar coverage of the team and its players since taking the helm last season... However!!!
It seems recently that MLB ushered all of their team beat writers to name one ‘cult hero’ in their respective team’s history. I don’t know the specifics of the requirements that were put forth in order for a player to be considered, but it seems Mr. Toribio missed the mark by a considerable margin.
If you google cult hero, the definition comes back as a public figure who is greatly admired by a relatively small audience or is influential despite limited commercial success.
In a recent mlb.com crowdsourcing for cult heroes, the player that Juan chose for the Rays is Cuban right-handed pitcher, Rolando Arrojo, and I have to admit it’s not the name I expected to read!
After defecting from Cuba during the 1996 Summer Olympics being held in Atlanta, Arrojo eventually signed with the expansion Tampa Bay Devil Rays. He made his debut during the team’s inaugural season in 1998, became the team’s first All-Star, and garnered some Rookie of the Year attention once the season concluded.
Following the 1999 season, he was involved in the trade that brought Vinny Castilla to Tampa Bay. Then, Arrojo journeyed around the league without much success before retiring in 2003.
All fine accolades, and he did serve as the first best pitcher in franchise history, but when you think back among the Rays folklore, you could consider several names with limited time but a lasting impact on Rays fans — the Legendary Sam Fuld, the Poet Fernando Perez, perhaps Akinori Iwamura and his Red Bat, or even various closers in Rays history that have been flashes in the pan — but one player in particular stands out above them all.
That player is The Great Pumpkin, Dan Johnson.
Johnson joined the Rays in 2008 after being claimed off waiver in April. However, before ever actually joining the team, Johnson would be designated for assignment. As fate would have it, he cleared waivers and spent the season in Triple-A Durham. When September came around and rosters expanded, Johnson was brought up onto the Rays active roster as they fought for their first ever postseason berth.
Arriving too late to start as was originally planned, Johnson was called upon to pinch hit in a one run game in Boston against the Red Sox. The Rays were winless in Boston all season and the two teams were fighting tooth and nail for the top spot in the American League East.
So, as fate would have it, Johnson faced Jonathan Papelbon in the 9th inning and endeared himself forever in the hearts of Rays fans as he launched a game tying home run.
After spending the 2009 season in Japan, Johnson rejoined the Rays during the 2010 season. He demolished opposing pitchers in the minor leagues and joined the big league team in August and again provided some clutch moments. In late August, he crushed a walkoff home run against the Red Sox; later on in September, during a game against the New York Yankees, Johnson came through not just once but twice in the game.
The Rays and Yankees were neck and neck for the top spot in the division with only a couple of weeks left to play. Down by 1 in the fifth inning and Johnson quickly took care of that as he launched a two run homer to give the Rays a lead. Later on in the game, after some Derek Jeter shenanigans, the Rays were once again down by a run.
So, Dan Johnson did Dan Johnson things and the Rays had the lead once more and they’d go on to win the game and the division.
Of course, the best was yet to come.
A year later, after having already crushed another incredible go-ahead home run for the Rays earlier in the season, Johnson was with the Rays in September as they marched from a 9 1⁄2 game deficit to tie the Boston Red Sox for the American League Wild Card in 2011.
On September 28th, 2011, the Rays played their final regular season of the year, a must-win contest against the New York Yankees.
Things quickly became bleak.
The Rays were down 7-0 and the Red Sox had taken a lead over the Baltimore Orioles.
Then the impossible happened the Rays stormed back to make it a one run game, meanwhile a storm raged on in Baltimore to delay the game between the Orioles and the Red Sox.
Two outs, two-two count, and Dan Johnson is up against Corey Wade and the season is on the line. As Brian Anderson said as Dan Johnson strode up to the plate, “Dan Johnson is coming up for one reason and one reason only.”
Johnson hooks a pitch and lines it down the right field line. As the ball arched in the air, it was the pure power of the Great Pumpkin that kept the ball fair as it curved around the foul pole for a game tying home run in the most crucial of situations.
And thus, an already integral part of Rays lore, Dan Johnson became a legend.
Five moments etched in history as The Great Pumpkin rose again and again to meet the occasion. If you had to choose a Rays cult hero, how could there be anyone else?