RIP to Ron Johnson, who had a very successful career as a minor-league manager after a brief career in the major leagues in the 1980s. He died on January 26 at St. Thomas Rutherford Hospital in Murfreesboro, Tenn., at the age of 64 from complications of COVID-19. Johnson played for the Kansas City Royals (1982-83) and Montreal Expos (1984) before starting a 25-year career as a minor-league manager. He is survived by his wife of 27 years, Daphane, and five children. His son, Chris Johnson, played in the majors from 2009-2016, mostly with the Astros and Braves.
“Our entire organization is devastated by this news,” said Joe Gregory, general manager of the AAA Norfolk Tides said in a statement. “R.J. was a fantastic manager who always got so much out of his players, but he was an even better person behind the scenes. His personality and love of the game made him one of baseball’s outstanding people, and he’ll truly be missed.”
Ronald David Johnson was born on March 23, 1956, in Long Beach, Calif. He was a slugger from a pretty early age, being chosen as an All-Star in the Northeast Little League and in the Pony League. He was a starter on the Garden Grove High School junior varsity team as a freshman and made the varsity team as a first baseman in his sophomore year.
By the time he got to Fullerton Junior College, Johnson was showing off the ability to hit 400-foot home runs. At the age of 19 in 1976, Johnson stood 6’2″, weighed 220 pounds and had a 19-inch neck. Unsurprisingly, he was an offensive lineman on the Fullerton football team as a freshman, but he decided to focus solely on baseball after that. Football’s loss was baseball’s gain, as he hit some tape-measure shots as a catcher/designated hitter.
“Ron’s a line drive hitter. He’s one of the few JC players I’ve seen who could reach the upper deck in the major leagues,” said his coach, Mike Sgobba.
The California Angels drafted Johnson in the 13th Round of the 1976 January Amateur Draft, but he elected to stay in college. He transferred to Fresno State University in 1977 and hit .333 with 10 home runs and 42 RBIs. FSU went to the Northern California Baseball Association championship, and he was named the conference’s MVP. He managed to improve on those numbers as a senior — .435 average, 14 homers, 50 RBIs — and was named to the All-American first team, beating out other slugging first basemen like Greg Brock and Tim Wallach for the honor.
Johnson was drafted again in 1978, this time in the 24th Round by the Kansas City Royals. I can’t account for what dropped him so far in the draft, but he was one of four players drafted in that round to make it to the major leagues. The power that was such a big part of his college game took a little while to show up in the minors. In his first season in rookie and low-A ball in 1978, Johnson hit just 1 long ball in 42 games while batting .268. He split time between AA Jacksonville and Class-A Fort Myers in 1979 and reached 10 homers. The fearsome slugger arrived in 1980, though.
Spending the entire season with the Jacksonville Suns, Johnson clubbed 23 homers and drove in 104 runs, while hitting .270 and slugging .482. He also hit 40 doubles and played a strong first base. He was added to the Royals’ 40-man roster to protect him from being drafted by another team, but he was considered a long shot to make the team in 1981 as a backup to first baseman Willie Aikens. “He’s shown some power, but we’re not sure if he can make the jump [from Jacksonville] to the majors,” said Royals’ general manager John Schuerholz.
The Royals moved Johnson up to AAA Omaha in 1981, and he batted .246 in 88 games with 7 home runs, missing time with a separated shoulder. He did gather some notice for being a right-handed hitting facsimile of Royals star George Brett. He had some of the same mannerisms, observers noted, and had a similar batting stance. Considering Brett nearly hit .400 in 1980, that’s not a bad hitter to emulate. It worked, too. In 1982, Johnson hit .336 for Omaha with 11 homers and 73 RBIs.
As a minor-leaguer in 1982, the pay was lousy, and Johnson needed to stretch whatever walking-around money the Omaha Royals gave him. Instead of paying for calls back home to his former wife, Karen, in California, he came up with a system to fill her in on his performance for free. He would make a collect call and ask for a fake name. If his best hit was a single, he’d ask for “Sam.” If it was a double, triple or home run, it would be “Don,” “Ted” or “Harry,” respectively. Karen would say the person isn’t home and ask for a return number, and he would be able to give his whole hitting performance in the number. If he was hitless, he’d ask for “Oscar,” but considering his high average, he didn’t have to use that one too often.
The Royals brought Johnson in September of 1982, but he didn’t get much playing time — at first. His MLB debut game in a blowout win over the Twins on September 12. He replaced Aikens at first base in the ninth inning of an 18-7 win and made a couple of putouts. Then he sat on the bench, until Aikens and backup Lee May were injured, leaving the rookie to play first base for much of a West Coast road trip.
Johnson was in the dugout on September 22 when manager Dick Howser told the rookie to get his glove. The Royals were playing the Angels that night, and Johnson’s first major-league start came with his wife and father in attendance.
“My dad [John] was more shocked than anybody,” Johnson said. “They thought he was going to have a heart attack — the big one. My wife was there and she had to run get him a beer,” Johnson told the Kansas City Times.
The Angels beat Kansas City that day, and Johnson was held hitless thanks to a brilliant defensive play by second baseman Bobby Grich. Johnson was hitless the next day as well, but with two walks. He picked up his first hit — a double off Oakland’s Tom Underwood — in the game after that. Before Aikens returned to regular duty, Johnson started one more game on September 26 and went 3-for-3 with a walk and a double. He ended the year with a .286 batting average in 8 games.
Johnson came to spring training in 1983 with hopes of making the team as a pinch-hitter or backup first baseman. Instead, the team wanted him to be a third-string/bullpen catcher — something Johnson hadn’t done since college. He jumped at the chance.
“I’m in a position where I’ll do anything I can to win a place on this team,” he said. “Carry the water bucket or whatever else. If this is what it’s going to take for me [to make the team], I’ll give 150 percent to do it.”
Johnson made the Royals roster, but he never saw action in the seven week or so he was there. His jobs were working as a bullpen catcher and entertaining his teammates on bus rides by playing a guitar and singing country songs. He was eventually sent back to Omaha and again hit over .300, rejoining the Royals in September. He played a couple of games behind the plate in blowout losses before moving back to first base. In 9 games, Johnson had 7 singles and 3 walks for a .259 batting average and .333 on-base percentage.
In December of 1983, the Royals traded Johnson to the Montreal Expos for pitcher Tom Dixon. The 28-year-old Johnson again hit over .300 with the AAA Indianapolis Indians in ’84, but the only major-league action he was was during a brief trip to the big leagues in June. He appeared in 5 games, getting an RBI single off the Mets’ Doug Sisk on June 9 in Montreal. It was his only National League hit. Released at the end of the season, Johnson spent 1985 in the Tigers and White Sox organizations in his last season as a ballplayer.
In parts of 3 seasons, Johnson appeared in 22 major-league games and went 12-for-46 for a .261/.358/.304 slash line. He had 2 doubles, scored 4 runs and had 2 RBIs. As an 8-year minor-leaguer, Johnson hit .296 with 72 home runs.
Johnson worked at a carpet store in Florida when he got a call from the Royals about working as a minor-league coach. He began coaching the Florida State League Royals in 1987 and was given his first managerial assignment in 1992 with the Baseball City Royals of the FSL. “You get to the point where you want to call the shots,” Johnson said of his new role. “I went to get to the big leagues. I need to get on my resume that I’ve managed.”
Johnson reached the FSL playoffs in his first season and managed his teams to above-.500 records for seven of his eight seasons in the Royals’ organization. He moved from A-ball to AA Wichita for three seasons before ending back at Omaha, where he spent so much time as a player. Johnson advanced up the organization with many future Royals stars, including Johnny Damon, Michael Tucker and Mike Sweeney. Along the way, he developed a good appreciation for what a minor-league manager actually does.
“It was a rough job, especially at the lower level,” he said in 1993. “You’re not only the manager, you’re the disciplinarian. You’re their friend. You’re their father. You’re their mother. You’re their brother. And you’re their bank.”
Johnson became the first manager of the Wilmington Blue Rocks in 1993. He was such a force of nature there that he filmed a commercial for the local Quality Inn that played for years after he left town. A local dentist recapped seven of his teeth for free because he was a big fan of the team. He brought that swagger with him wherever he went and never failed to leave a lasting impression.
“When I hit a town, I hit it hard,” he joked.
In 2000, he became the manager for the Sarasota Red Sox, back in the Florida State League. Once again, he rose up the ranks to spend 2005 through 2009 as the manager of the AAA Pawtucket Red Sox. There, he shepherded the likes of Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia to successful major-league careers. As AAA managers do, Johnson had to handle constant roster turnover, as players came and went from the low minors to Pawtucket or from the minors to the major leagues. Pawtucket won a franchise record 85 games in 2008 under his guidance. That was the year he also got to brag about his son Chris heading to the major leagues himself with the Houston Astros. Although it did make spring training games between the two teams a little awkward.
“I’ve never rooted for anybody on the other team before,” Johnson confessed before one such game. “It will be a fun thing for us.”
Johnson accomplished his goal of returning to the major leagues when the Red Sox named him as the team’s first base coach for the 2010 season. In July of 2010, the family’s world changed. His 10-year-old daughter Bridget had gone horseback riding with her older sister Cheyanne near their home in Morrison, Tenn. As they crossed a street, a speeding driver collided with Bridget’s horse. She spent more than a month in a hospital and, after several surgeries to try and fix the damage, lost her left leg just below the knee. Johnson left the Red Sox for the rest of the season and spent it with his family, helping his daughter with her injuries as she regained her mobility.
The Red Sox community rallied around the Johnson family, with gifts, well-wishes and jerseys. Johnson told Boston Globe reporter Amalie Benjamin that, as far as the family was concerned, Red Sox president Theo Epstein was a Superman before he appeared on a newspaper in the costume. “I’ve never been prouder to work for somebody than I was after going through this, because there’s so much care about the person.
“I even told [Red Sox manager Terry Francona] one day, ‘I’m mostly embarrassed… I’m not this good a coach.’ ‘Nah,’ he goes, ‘but you’re a pretty good guy.'”
Bridget was fitted for a prosthetic leg and threw out the first pitch at a game at Fenway Park in 2011… much to her father’s surprise.
The Red Sox parted ways with Francona and his coaching staff after the 2011 season. Johnson was hired as manager of the Norfolk Tides, the AAA affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles. He held that position from 2012 until 2018, becoming the winningest manager in Tides’ history in the process. Still known for his competitiveness even into his late 50s and early 60s, he was infamous at Norfolk for flinging his hat into the crowd after being ejected for arguing with umpires, according to his obituary in The Virginian-Pilot. An usher would then locate the person who caught the hat and exchange it for an autographed version. He won the Cal Ripken Sr. Player Development Award in 2015 and 2018, which goes to a staffer “who exemplifies Ripken’s qualities as an instructor.” He was also named the International League Manager of the Year in 2015, as Norfolk won a division title.
The 2018 award came as the Tides finished 69-71 in spite of 223 transactions and a record-tying 32 players played for both the Tides and parent club Orioles. As a further sign of the team’s turmoil, Johnson was let go as part of an organizational shake-up. He retired to his Tennessee home with 1,752 wins as a minor-league manager.
In the wake of his death, many of his former players and friends have expressed their sympathies. Kevin Youkilis wrote on Instagram, “Devastated to hear the news that Ron Johnson has passed away. One of my favorite coaches that made coming to the field everyday enjoyable. Always laughing, being a “front runner” coach, holding court before batting practice and truly loving the game of baseball. Thank you RJ for the amazing memories and the movie selections on the bus rides!”