Drawing on All His Strength : Baseball: While Deron Johnson battles cancer at home, his son Dominick gets a chance with the Angels.
Dominick Johnson, a 23-year-old pitcher drafted out of the San Francisco Giant organization in December, will be joining the Angels at their minor league spring camp.
His excitement at this opportunity is tempered by the fact that his father won’t be there to share it with him.
Deron Johnson, the Angels’ batting instructor for the last three years, is battling lung cancer at his home in Poway, near San Diego.
The Angels announced the other day that Johnson is too weak to attend spring training, where he was to settle in as Manager Buck Rodgers’ bench coach, while Rod Carew takes over as hitting coach.
At 6 feet 2 and 210 pounds, Johnson hit 32 home runs and drove in a National League-leading 130 runs for the Cincinnati Reds in 1965. He had 34 home runs and 95 runs batted in for the Philadelphia Phillies in 1971. He had 20 or more homers and 80 or more RBIs six times during a 16-year career as a major league infielder-outfielder.
“Strongest man I ever saw,” said former major league executive Buzzie Bavasi, who employed Johnson as hitting coach while president of the San Diego Padres in 1981.
“One day he came to the park with a black eye and bruises all over his body,” Bavasi recalled. “Said he had been kicked by one of the horses he used to raise. He looked awful and I told him I was sorry and he said, ‘Yeah, but you should see the horse.’ ”
Dominick Johnson laughed at mention of the anecdote.
“I remember,” he said. “The horse was named Nugget, and he kicked Dad when he walked behind him. Dad punched him right back.”
Johnson, 53, is taking on the cancer with that same aggressiveness.
He is showing the same fortitude he demonstrated with the Atlanta Braves in 1968, when he played out the season despite a broken wrist, knowing something was wrong but rejecting a diagnosis until the season was over.
He has refused to have treatment since learning of the cancer in June.
It was his wish, as conveyed by then manager Doug Rader, that writers covering the team last summer not mention it in print. Johnson’s condition did not become public until Angel catcher Lance Parrish, accepting the Good Guy award on Johnson’s behalf at the recent baseball writers dinner, asked those in attendance to offer a prayer for Johnson.
“Dad felt he had a job to do and didn’t want to be sidetracked by a lot of well-intentioned sympathy,” Dominick Johnson said. “That’s not his style.”
Often a man of few words, Johnson’s style, at home and at the ballpark, belies a gruff and imposing appearance.
“His approach, the way he talks, acts and does things, has always brought out the best in people,” said Jim Fregosi, who employed Johnson as his hitting coach while managing the Angels in 1979 and the Chicago White Sox in 1987.
“His rapport with hitters was as good as any hitting instructor I’ve ever known,” Fregosi said. “The White Sox went from last in the league in doubles to first in the one year he was there.”
The Johnsons once owned 25 acres with 50 head of cattle and half a dozen horses in the San Diego area. They now have 5 1/2 acres, a couple of horses and a phone that is always ringing. Rader calls three or four times a week. Teammates from as far back as Class A, 30 years ago, check in, hoping to lift Johnson’s spirits. Wally Joyner, Bryan Harvey and Jeter Hines drive down to play pinochle, then help Johnson back to bed.
“Everyone has been great,” Dominick Johnson said. “I mean, you can see in their eyes and hear in their voices how much they like and respect Dad, and that means a lot to Dad and to us.”
Deron Johnson, in turn, has tried to ease the burden for his wife, Lucy, and their three children. Deron, the oldest son, is a golf pro at Rancho Bernardo Country Club and has PGA Tour aspirations. Dana, their daughter, is a high school senior.
“Dad weighed all the options and decided against treatment because the odds weren’t that good, and he wanted to retain the quality of his life without any side effects or sedation,” Dominick Johnson said.
“He hopes to regain his strength, but recognizes the cards he’s been dealt. He doesn’t bitch or sulk. He makes it pleasant to be home.”
Deron Johnson was a multisport standout at San Diego High, a widely coveted end and running back on a football team that also featured Art Powell, a future pro star. Johnson was so good in high school that Gene Mauch said he heard about him long before he managed against him in the National League.
“In ‘65,” Mauch said of the season Johnson drove in 130 runs, “he had an absolutely unforgettable season hitting behind Frank Robinson. He drove in those 130 runs, and I bet he drove in Tommy Harper 100 times. Every time I saw those two before a game I’d say to myself, ‘There’s two runs right there. I have to figure out a way to handle it.’
“Deron was so good that year that the Reds traded Frank Robinson (after the season) to Baltimore for Milt Pappas. I mean, that’s about as much as you can say for a man. The Reds had enough faith in DJ that they felt they could trade Frank Robinson away.”
In his new uniform, Dominick Johnson has been working out regularly this winter at Anaheim Stadium, each visit rekindling memories of visits to Anaheim and other stadiums with his father.
Dominick Johnson knows it will be difficult keeping his mind on business as he tries to impress Angel management this spring.
“I know that my thoughts will be at home, that there’s more important things than baseball and that my father is certainly one of them,” he said. “I’d be lying if I said I won’t be thinking of him, but I’m also paid to pitch and I’m looking forward to being back on the mound. The Angels have told me I’m going to pitch a lot, and that’s all I can ask. I want the ball.”
Dominick Johnson’s progress with the Giants was delayed by shoulder surgery in 1990. The right-hander came back with a 3.25 earned-run average in 72 innings at Class-A Reno last year, but the Giants did not protect him in the December draft.
“My arm strength is there, my mental strength is there and I just need the opportunity to develop consistency with my mechanics,” he said.
As he pursues it, Dominick Johnson is convinced that his father will be with him in spirit, that the lessons and the legacy grow stronger as Deron Johnson struggles with a deadly foe.
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