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Q&A with Dave Johnson on the 1989 Orioles

By Candus Thomson

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

5:33 AM EDT, September 29, 2009

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Teams have come and gone, but [the 1989 Orioles] will always occupy a warm spot in the hearts of Orioles fans. Why?

Dave Johnson: I run into people all the time, being from here, and they like to talk about the "Why Not?" team rather than the 1996 and '97 teams, even though they went to the playoffs. Players overachieved and there were a lot of guys no one ever heard of and never heard of after that. It's definitely a year fans cherish.

Chemistry?

Dave Johnson: I'm not a big fan of that theory. The Yankees fought each other for years and still won. You play to win and you do that on the field, but realistically what people do in the clubhouse it doesn't have an adverse or a positive effect on the team unless somebody does something to disrupt the morale.

So if it wasn't chemistry and it wasn't fairy dust, what was it?

Dave Johnson: Oh, I'm not saying it wasn't fairy dust. It was a deal where a lot of guys got caught up in believing they could do something they hadn't done before and that they never did after. They believed. Not hokey believed, but believed in themselves that they could be part of the puzzle, and that if everybody did they same thing and believed they could be one piece of the puzzle, it would all come together.

I don't remember thinking that then. I mean, I was fighting for my life. It was my opportunity to come to the big leagues for the first time in my life and be a starter. I probably envisioned that as being my last time if things didn't go well. I was fighting tooth-and-nail, scratching and clawing. I had no idea what our record was, I had no idea that they were in first place for 132 days, or whatever it was, because I had been in Rochester. When I came up Aug. 1 at the tail end of a losing streak, I was just doing whatever I could do to win a game. But then the last two weeks of the season, it all came together: the finality of if we win a couple of games here, we're going to the playoffs. Then it became playoff atmosphere, playoff jitters and nerves.

From newspaper stories back then, it sure didn't seem like a uptight group of guys going to Toronto.

Dave Johnson:I was kind of an outsider looking in even though people consider me a part of that team. They had done so much the four months before I had gotten there for my bit part, starting with Opening Day, when they beat [ Red Sox pitcher] Roger Clemens. You had guys who came in and had a couple of good starts or a couple of good weeks or a career season. It all came together at the right time. For me, I was kind of caught up in, 'If I don't pitch well, I don't have a job next season. I'm not pitching in the big leagues any more.'

But you ended up being a huge part of that final weekend.

Dave Johnson: Well, yes, to the extent that I pitched really well and we lost (laughs). People tell me, 'You should write a book. This is a movie.' I say, 'Well, my biggest game in the big leagues the one that everybody remembers me for is a game that we lost. That's a defining moment?' I feel I didn't really accomplish that much, but I accomplished something that a lot of other people would have loved to accomplish. I'm very proud of that, but I wanted more.

You left the game in the eighth with the lead.

Dave Johnson: I walked the lead-off batter. I feel two of the pitches I threw were the same strikes being called all day, but [umpire] John Shulock felt that the strike zone needed a change in the eighth and ninth innings from what it was in the first seven innings. I was surprised [manager] Frank [Robinson] was taking me out but I also thought that Gregg Olson was coming in and, of course, he didn't. Kevin Hickey proceeded to walk the next guy on pitches that looked to be as good as any pitches you could throw. Frank [Robinson] took him out before he could walk the second guy and [Mark] Williamson came in -- he had a fantastic year -- and he proceeded to give up a hit, a walk and a sacrifice fly and they scored three runs. We didn't get any runs in the next inning and we lost, 4-3, and we lost the pennant. It happened so fast.

No more fairy dust?

Dave Johnson: I don't know what it was. Wait, I'll tell you what that season was, it was if you didn't go out and do you job to the best of you ability you feel like you let your team down, the fans, the coaching staff. It was that accountability. I always felt that if I didn't pitch well, I let Frank down because he put me in the rotation and gave me a chance. That first month, August, I went 4-2 and got Player of the Week. September rolls around and I didn't pitch horribly but I was 0-5. We weren't hitting the last 1 ½ months of the season, so, like the team now, you couldn't afford to give up two or three runs.

You pitched that game on three day's rest. Was that a problem?

Dave Johnson: No, we never made anything of pitch counts or pitching on short rest.

The legend is they told you three hours before Game 2 that you were starting? True?

Dave Johnson: I got to the ballpark and typically [coach] Elrod Hendricks would put two baseballs in the spikes of whoever the starting pitcher was that day ... the two baseballs were in my spikes. I thought he just mixed up something. I went over and put them back in his locker and went to get something to eat. I go back to my locker and they're back in my shoes again. I ran into Al Jackson, the pitching coach, and I said, 'I don't think Elrod knows Pete's pitching.' Al Jackson gave me this stare, like, 'Are you that stupid?' I told him, 'OK, no big deal' and meanwhile I'm thinking [expletive deleted], the freaking pennant's on the line. We have to win today. I haven't been pitching that well. I was also smart enough to know, 'Wow, what an opportunity this is to save my year, to save my career.'

So, conflicting emotions.

Dave Johnson: I just knew the magnitude of the game: that it was the last Saturday Game of the Week with Tony Kubek and Bob Costas for the season, it was a pennant race, everybody's eyes in baseball were on that game. But I also realized that I wasn't supposed to do well. There was no pressure on me. If I go out and suck, everybody would say 'Well, we knew he sucked.' Frank could have picked a lot of different guys. I was so fortunate that Frank thought enough of me to give me the ball.

Despite losing the biggest game of your life it was still an amazing season, right?

Dave Johnson: I could have played for the '96 team or the '97 team but I don't think it would have been the same as playing for the "Why Not?" team. That start resurrected my career. It put me back on the map. I don't go more than a week or two without somebody saying, 'I was at my friend's wedding. The bride was all mad because all of the guys were in another room with the TV watching your game.' Everybody has memories of that game. There isn't a day that goes by that I don't sit back and think, 'What the hell happened?'