SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Last September, at the age of 29, DJ Johnson made his big-league debut, filling a bullpen role for the Rockies.
The past off-season he found himself on a 40-man roster for the first time.
This spring, he was in a big-league spring training camp for the first time in a professional career that began back in 2010.
And on Saturday, he received the ultimate good news -- for the first time in his career, he will be on a big-league roster on Opening Day. Manager Bud Black said Johnson has made the team, leaving the Rockies with one remaining decision on the pitching staff -- left-hander Harrison Musgrave and right-hander Jeff Hoffman for the long reliever.
Musgrave is considered to have the edge with the believe Hoffman is really being kept in big-league camp in case of a late spring injury to one of the five set members in the rotation -- lefthanders Kyle Freeland and Tyler Anderson, and right-handers German Marquez, Jon Gray and Chat Bettis.
The big news, however, is the arrival of Johnson, whose long-term dream is now reality.
“It’s definitely emotional,” said Johnson. “Every year I’ve come into camp fighting for a spot on a roster, but not a big-league roster.”
It’s been a Rand McNally type career for Johnson, who is now with his 11th different team since signing that free-agent contract with the Tampa Bay Rays back in 2010 and reporting to their rookie-league team in the Gulf Coast League. And he didn’t even pitch in 2013.
The list of employees ranges from two stints with the independent league team in Traverse City to last September’s big-league debut at Coors Field.
“It has been a long and winding road to get here,” Johnson said. “There have been a lot of ups and downs.”
Nothing has been more up than the last seven months, and he has put himself in position to put an exclamation on the opportunity. He appeared in his eighth game of the spring on Tuesday night, working a scoreless innings, leaving him with a line of 7 2/3 scoreless innings with six base runners – four singles and two walks – and six strikeouts.
He shakes his head when he thinks about that journey that has taken him from the Gulf Coast League to Traverse City, Missoula, South Bend, Visalia, back to Traverse City, Fort Myers, Chattanooga, Little Rock, Hartford, Albuquerque and then last September Denver.
Albuquerque manager Glenallen Hill obviously appreciated the experience that awaited Johnson, and when the Isotopes season ended last September, he added a flair of dramatics to the moment.
“After our last game, Glennallen gave his end of the year speech,” Johnson said. “At the start of it, he announced three other players who were called up, and then at the end he said, `By the way, we have one more guy going up. He’s in the back of the room, and everyone looked at me. It was special.”
How big a deal was it?
“It meant I could go home and be with my family in the winter,” said Johnson. “It was special.”
Before the call up he was planning to play in the Dominican Republic for another winter, knowing that the three-month salary would help augment a minor-league salary. That month in the big leagues, though, translated into nearly $100,000 for the one-sixth of a minimum big-league salary.
“I knew something freaky was going on with my plane ticket,” he said. “I got the itinerary and went to check in for a seat, and the reservation was void.”
That’s because instead of heading back to Portsmouth, Ohio and the family home, he was headed to Denver, and The Show.
The Dream was a Reality.
The big-league debut came last Sept. 10. The Rockies lost the game to the Dodgers, 9-6, but it was a memorable moment for Johnson. He got the call in the fifth inning, the Rockies down 6-2, one out and a runner on third. Twelve pitches later, he had registered his first two big-league strikeouts, and the Dodgers were denied adding to their lead.
Now, the reality sets in that the one-month was more than a cameo.
“I come in every day and make sure I am ready for the day,” he said early in camp. “I’ll do anything to make the team win. I can come in and mop up an inning or I can come into a big situation. Anything they want.”
It certainly has been a Fairy Tale story.
“I fell in love with the game when I was nine years old,” he said. “I knew I wanted to be a baseball player. I have been blessed enough to keep getting opportunities.
“Early in my career I took things for granted. It got to the point where I had to take things more serious but still have fun playing the game. I look at it as a job, but a job I enjoy. You have to keep that bit of kid in you.”
The round-around-road included attending Mount Hood Community College in Gresham, Ore., and Western Oregon University. A pitcher in his youth, he found himself playing first base at Western Oregon. When he finished school, his future was in limbo.
And then a door opened.
“The pitching coach at Western Oregon coached a high school all-star team that every year played the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes, a short-season team for the Giants,” Johnson said. “He asked me to pitch a couple innings, just so it would be a complete slaughter, and there happened to be a scout for Tampa Bay in the stands. He called my head coach at Western Oregon, and three days later called me asking if I wanted a job.”
It didn’t take long for Johnson to say yes, and find himself on a plane to Tampa, Fla., and a spot on the Ray’s Gulf Coast League affiliate – as a pitcher.
“I always thought I’d be a hitter, but I wouldn’t have it any other way right now,” said Johnson. “It’s been a long, crazy journey, and everything I’ve done up until this point seemed like it was pointing. But now? It has been worth it.”
And for that, give credit to his wife, Mel.
“My wife actually brought me to God,” he said. “We started praying a lot. She was the friend who talked me into keep playing in 2015. She knew what I wanted to do. She has been so supportive, I pushed myself even more to keep pursuing the dream.”
And now the dream has become a reality.