- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 5, 2008

There are different ways to examine the baseball life of Adam Johnson, whom the Minnesota Twins selected with the No. 2 pick in the 2000 major league draft and now pitches for the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs. It all depends on who’s doing the examining.

Johnson can be placed high among the draft’s countless examples of its unpredictability and fickleness. After signing for $2.5 million out of Cal State Fullerton, the right-hander proceeded to pitch all of 26 1/3 innings with a 10.25 ERA during parts of two seasons with the Twins. The impolite and perhaps unfair word is bust.

Johnson, however, prefers another point of view.

“I don’t feel like I’m a failure,” he said. “If anyone wants to say it’s the team’s fault or my fault, I don’t know. I can’t tell you why I’m not in the big leagues or why I’m not with the Twins. But I’m not bitter. I’m 28, and I’m still playing baseball. That’s pretty good.”

This is the first season for the Blue Crabs, based in Waldorf and owned by Baltimore Orioles legend Brooks Robinson. They belong to the Atlantic League, an independent minor league with no major league affiliations.

“What we’re trying to do is get guys back to a [major league] organization,” Blue Crabs pitching coach Andre Rabouin said. “But then there are some who just like to play ball.”

Johnson fits both categories. With his wife, Amy, back home in Florida, he lives with one of the team’s several host families. He will earn $2,000 for the summer, “enough for food,” he said, and the bus rides are long and sometimes perilous (An 18-wheeler recently clipped the team bus on the Beltway; no one was hurt). But his good spirits and love of the game remain intact.

“The nice part about baseball is you always have that camaraderie,” he said. “A lot of people, when they retire, that’s what they miss most. Baseball is good. If it wasn’t, I wouldn’t be enjoying it. It’s a beautiful sport.”

But Johnson also wants to return to the majors, even though he last pitched there in 2003. He was released by the Twins, then Arizona, then twice by Oakland. He also pitched in California’s independent Golden League (Rickey Henderson was a teammate) and played winter ball in Venezuela, Mexico and the Dominican Republic. In his last professional season, 2006, he pitched for a couple of Oakland’s minor league affiliates.

“It’s still in my hopes and dreams,” he said. “If I didn’t come here with a purpose, it wouldn’t do me any good. You have to have a reason to be here. Mine is to get back to affiliated ball. Work my way up and see what I can do. A lot of people have hopes to get back. This is one of those places that give you an opportunity. Can I go out and pitch a complete-game shutout? More than likely, no. But I’m gonna work on it. You have to have confidence in yourself and work hard every day.”

Among Johnson’s teammates are 39-year-old Curtis Pride, who overcame deafness to play 11 seasons in the majors, and 36-year-old John Halama, whose nine big league seasons included a short stint with the Nationals in 2005. Halama is 4-1 with a 1.91 ERA and might sign with a big league club soon.

“I can’t believe he’s still here,” manager Butch Hobson said after Halama and the Blue Crabs lost to York 2-1 on Monday.

The Atlantic League might be the last stop for many, but scouts know about it. Players regularly leave for affiliated clubs and Hobson, the former big league third baseman and manager, said he gets lots of calls. The league is considered more competitive than the other independents, mainly because it can use unlimited veteran players.

None of the calls to Hobson have pertained to Johnson, though. After getting knocked around early in the season, he went on the disabled list for three weeks with what he called a “sore” elbow. Ironically, he sat out last season “to get strong and healthy,” he said, and the injury might have stemmed from mechanical problems caused in part by rustiness.

Johnson came off the DL on Tuesday and will start out in the bullpen.

“I haven’t seen that much of him, but he shows a good arm,” Rabouin said. “He shows pretty good stuff. He’s a good guy, good in the clubhouse. He works hard. It seems like he’s a bulldog on the mound. Hopefully, we can get him back to that mode.”

Said Hobson: “He’ll get a chance.”

Which, Johnson said, he might not have had in Minnesota. He was called up in 2001 and pitched sporadically for the Twins that year and in 2003. He was gone after the next season.

“What got me the most was a lack of trust,” he said. “They put me in the [bullpen] and sat me three weeks without throwing. You can’t do that. I bounced back and forth. … For some reason, it didn’t mesh well with me.”

He said inactivity led to problems with the A’s, too.

The Twins (whose officials did not return several messages) have been roundly second-guessed for drafting Johnson, but the top of the 2000 draft is considered among the weakest ever. Florida took high school first baseman Adrian Gonzalez with the No. 1 pick, but his talent kicked in only after the team traded him. Luis Montanez, Mike Stodolka, Justin Wayne, Rocco Baldelli, Matt Harrington, Matt Wheatland, Mark Phillips and Joe Torres rounded out the top 10 after Johnson.

Only Gonzalez and Baldelli have seen significant time in the majors. Aside from Johnson, the others never played in a big league game.

“I’m living a pretty good life,” Johnson said. “I can’t complain too much. I got some money when I signed. I got some time in the big leagues. Not many people can say that.”

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