PEMBROKE PINES, Fla. -- The number is 1.7.
When the lightning ballet works to perfection -- the feet shift nimbly, the fingers find the grip and the throw is true -- Charles Johnson can transport a baseball from home plate to second base in 1.7 seconds. Most major-league catchers can handle the practice, known as glove to glove, in 1.9 or 2.0 seconds.
The difference between Johnson, a four-time Gold Glove Award winner in the National League, and most catchers is the difference between safe and out. In the Orioles' case, it is the difference between issuing a license to steal and announcing a lockdown.
By acquiring Johnson on Dec. 1 from the New York Mets in a three-way deal that also included the Los Angeles Dodgers, general manager Frank Wren transformed a long-standing deficiency into a strength. In return for disgraced closer Armando Benitez, who majority owner Peter Angelos had privately vowed would never save another game in Baltimore, Wren made his first trade as Orioles GM a massive step toward transforming a team burned too long and too often by larceny.
"It's a huge boost," says manager Ray Miller, perhaps the deal's biggest advocate. "We have a guy now who can shut down the running game just by his presence. No knock on anyone else, but it becomes pretty depressing when guys steal uncontested or are safe on pitchouts. And that happened a number of times last season. To be honest, I was surprised more teams didn't try it against us."
Chris Hoiles, a clubhouse pillar known as Tractor for his toughness, labored through 83 games behind the plate, his lower back screaming for relief and his right knee only a year removed from surgery. At catcher, Hoiles is listed only as a last resort on Miller's spring depth chart.
Lenny Webster, signed to a split contract before the 1997 season, appeared in a career-high 108 games and generated impressive offensive numbers. However, he showed noticeable wear by August. Hoiles threw out 21 percent of base stealers against him; Webster, considered a defensive upgrade, caught only 23 percent.
Further exposed by a pitching staff not adept at policing runners, the tandem finished with two of the four lowest success rates among catchers with more than 70 appearances. The Orioles surrendered 182 stolen bases last season while stealing only 86 themselves.
Johnson represents the spectrum's other end, a defensive light so brilliant that he may be rightly considered the club's most impressive off-season acquisition, even against the $65 million signing of free agent Albert Belle.
"Charles gives us a quantity not many teams have," says Wren, who saw Johnson's first four seasons while Florida Marlins assistant GM. "He works well with pitchers and can really control a game."
From his suburban Fort Lauderdale home, Johnson speaks quietly but forcefully of catching as a calling more than a job.
"You cannot be a good catcher unless you really want to," he insists.
Johnson was raised to do this work. His father, Charles Sr., a former pitcher at Florida A&M;, tutored him as a youth before coaching him in high school. Access to a pitching machine enabled Johnson's father to teach him the hard task of blocking pitches and developing soft hands -- often at high speed from 45 feet -- while imparting the proper footwork vital to a lightning release. An uncle, Roy McGriff, caught at Southern University and helped foster Johnson's love for the position.
"When you catch, you can't take a pitch off. You can't relax," says Johnson, extolling rather than lamenting the fact. "You're working with a pitcher who has prepared himself four days for a start. If you shortchange him, you're basically wasting his week."
Johnson returns again and again to his drills, even during a season in which he may catch 130 games. Such devotion accounts for his holding the major-league record for consecutive error-free games. Throwing enhances the package. During his career, Johnson has thrown out 43.5 percent of those attempting to steal against him. The major-league average last season was 31.4 percent.
"If you keep guys from running, the game changes. That gives guys like Moose [Mike Mussina] and [Scott] Erickson a chance to throw a ground ball and get a double play. Otherwise, you're looking at a run-scoring situation," says Johnson, who benefited from an association with quick workers Kevin Brown, Al Leiter and Alex Fernandez in Florida but will have to adjust to a different pace with deliberate types such as Scott Kamieniecki and Juan Guzman.
If a pitcher cooperates, science sides with the Orioles. Given a delivery of 1.3 seconds to the plate -- considered a competent standard -- a "normal" relay of 1.8 seconds by Johnson leaves a base runner 3.1 seconds to cover an average of 26 yards. "If I'm at 1.8 and the guy beats the throw, then he deserves the base," Johnson says.
Miller looks forward to using a catcher confident of calling any pitch at any point in the count.
"I saw pitchers giving in on 3-2 [counts] last season. That bothered me," Miller says. "This guy should change that."
Johnson, who will call his own game, will use spring training to familiarize himself with the pitchers' abilities.
"You focus on what a pitcher does best, what makes him tick, how he got to the big leagues. Once I know his strengths, everything else falls into place. You can talk about hitters all you want. But when a pitch has to be made, you go to your pitcher's strength, whatever it is," Johnson says.
In acquiring Johnson, Wren returned to a familiar strength.
Johnson, 27, split last season between the Marlins and the Dodgers. Abruptly traded to the Dodgers in May by cost-cutting Florida, he acknowledges suffering a difficult season that included personal as well as professional stress. Unlike many of the discarded Fish, Johnson had hoped to remain with a rebuilding club that plays its games 20 minutes from his home and less than an hour from the University of Miami, where he was an All-American.
"I liked it here," Johnson says while sitting on his back porch. "Even with everything that was going on, I really believed the organization saw me as a young guy who could work with whatever pitchers they brought in."
Johnson wasn't in just any deal. He was packaged with Bobby Bonilla, Gary Sheffield and others for catcher Mike Piazza and Todd Zeile. Fans accustomed to Piazza's offensive glitz found Johnson's .217 average and 99 strikeouts in 346 at-bats unacceptable. Even his defense occasionally lagged. Still, Johnson threw out 39.8 percent of opposing base stealers and won a fourth consecutive Gold Glove.
At the time of the deal, Johnson's wife, Rhonda, was seven months' pregnant with their first child, Brandon. Shortly afterward, Johnson's grandmother, who had raised him while his mother attended college, died suddenly in Fort Pierce.
"You experience things that everybody else goes through, so when you talk about it, it sounds like an excuse. But it was tough," says Johnson, who plans to return to South Florida each winter. "Overnight, you change pitching staffs and you're involved in one of the biggest trades in history. I'm halfway across the country [in St. Louis] with my wife pregnant at home and now I'm going to the West Coast. It was unsettling."
The final indignity occurred after his trade to the Orioles, when reports surfaced that the Dodgers were miffed over Johnson's refusal to participate in the Arizona Fall League, primarily a showcase for prospects rather than a purgatory for a Gold Glove winner.
"People in the organization said they asked me to go to winter ball and I refused. For one thing, I was never asked to go. Plus, I had just caught 131 games. What am I going to accomplish at Arizona Fall League?" Johnson wonders.
The criticism was directed at Johnson's sporadic hitting, which hints at power with frequent lapses of contact. He became tagged as a pull-conscious hitter in Chavez Ravine. Johnson is a career .234 hitter who has never had 20 home runs, 65 RBIs or 50 runs in a season, leaving some to think Johnson too comfortable with his tag as a defensive star.
"I catch when I catch, and I hit when I hit. I can't be thinking about hitting when I'm catching or catching when I'm hitting," Johnson says, adding with a twist of wry: "Usually I'm hitting after I catch because I bat so far down in the order. Maybe that's what everybody means when they say I'm a catcher first, a hitter second."
Forced to counterpunch for free agents during much of his first weeks with the Orioles, Wren pursued Johnson as his first trade by first approaching Dodgers GM Kevin Malone. Wren would part with Benitez, but Malone, the Orioles' former assistant GM, was aware of Benitez's vagaries and instead wanted left-handed reliever Arthur Rhodes and a prospect. Wren was committed to losing only one player. The Mets held long-standing interest in Benitez, so Wren and New York GM Steve Phillips worked a deal contingent on the Mets' securing Johnson.
"Anytime you can get a Gold Glove catcher for a relief pitcher, you do it," Wren says.
As simple as the philosophy is, Wren needed more than 1.7 seconds to relay it.
Running into trouble
Johnson throwing out runners
Charles Johnson's career stats vs. would-be base stealers:
Year out att. Pct.
1998 37 93 .398
1997 50 112 .446
1996 38 79 .481
1995 36 87 .414
1994 1 1 1.000
Tot. 162 372 .435
'98 Orioles throwing out runners
How Orioles catchers struggled at it last season:
Catcher out att. Pct.
Hoiles 27 126 .214
Webster 25 107 .234
Greene 1 2 .500
Team 53 235 .226
Pub Date: 2/21/99