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Mudville: October 23, 2021 6:07 pm PDT
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One Dog & Three Bags

That there are so many interesting nuggets on Lance Johnson’s resume makes it a bit surprising that the Ohio native doesn’t garner more attention as one of the most dynamic players of the 90s.

It is a baseball decade best-remembered for a strike, steroids, tainted records and a Yankees dynasty. For nearly seven seasons, though, Johnson was as dynamic as any player in the game, using his speed and smarts to dominate the base paths in both leagues while setting records for triples and hits that are not only unique but will be difficult to break.

Johnson played in the same outfield at Triton College as Hall-of-Famer Kirby Puckett. He was St. Louis’ sixth-round pick in 1984 and made his Major League debut with the Cards three years later. Johnson made his first big impact on the game, though, after a trade to the White Sox and later when he signed with the Mets, putting together one of the more incredible seasons of the decade [1996], a year in which he was the star of his own highlight film.

The Cincinnati native is the only player to lead the league in triples four consecutive seasons. His five seasons of leading the league in triples is tied for second all-time with Hall-of-Famer Stan Musial and Willie Wilson, trailing only Hall-of-Famer Sam Crawford, who was a triples machine at the turn of the 20th century, and fellow Hall-of-Famer/Negro Leagues star Turkey Stearnes, each of whom led their respective league six times.

“To hit that many triples, you have to be able to hit the ball hard and you have to have speed,” said Johnson, whose affinity for the triple has also touched his family – he has a set of triplets who are now in high school. “I also think I ran a straighter line than everyone else did, too, which gave me an advantage.  I just figured it out.”

Additionally, Johnson is the only player to ever lead both leagues in hits and he was able to accomplish that in back-to-back seasons with the White Sox and Mets [1995-96]. Johnson remains a beloved figure in Chicago, where he helped the White Sox to a West Division title in 1993 while his one and a half seasons with the Mets remain among the most impressive individual stretches in franchise history.

And, it was all something that he had been planning for quite a while. That plan certainly reached fruition.

“What’s kind of neat is that I was actually planning my life since was eight years old,” Johnson said. “I was very disciplined; I didn’t fall for the pitfalls that you can normally fall for in the kind of neighborhood I grew up in. No one is immune to getting into trouble. It happened. I just chose to go right route. I could have easily gone wrong route.”

“When I saw [Florida manager] Jim Leyland after the trade, I said, ‘Don’t be afraid to share some of that World Series money with me.’ He said, ‘Lance, that trade just won us the World Series.’ There was a month and a half left.”

THE RIGHT ROUTE ISN’T ALWAYS THE QUICKEST ROUTE

Johnson was named as an honorable mention on the Greater Cincinnati High School Baseball Coaches Association All-Star team as a senior at Princeton High School. It led to him being drafted for the first time when the Pirates grabbed him in the 30th round of the 1981 First-Year Player Draft. While Johnson was a Pirates fan growing up, he chose not to sign.

“I knew Dave Parker and stuff like that but I didn’t feel like I was ready,” said Johnson, 58, who now lives in Alabama. “I was coming out of Cincinnati and my mom’s house was in foreclosure. She owed $30,000 on it and they wanted the money. Guess how much Pittsburgh offered me? $30,000. They offered $30,000 back then for a 30th-round pick. I knew I should have gotten picked in a higher round. No one gets that kind of money in a late round; that was big money then.

“But, I turned it down. We lost the house and we ended up moving to the projects. But I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t strong enough and ready to play [professionally] at that time. That’s a hard decision. We ended up moving to the projects but I was looking at it long term because I felt I wouldn’t have made it with the Pirates.”

So Johnson headed off to Triton Community College in Illinois to play baseball. He starred for the Trojans alongside Puckett – so much so that he is in the school’s athletic Hall-of-Fame – and was drafted once again, this time by the Mariners in 1982 [32nd round]. Once again, he did not sign.

“Going to junior college was the correct move because I got stronger,” Johnson said. “I got drafted by Seattle and they offered me $1,000. I started laughing on the phone. I told them it was an honor to be selected and thanks but no thanks and hung up the phone. So I went to junior college for a second year. Bob Symonds, my coach at junior college, was so awesome. The two years I was there and with me being a little guy [5-foot-10, 160 pounds], he had to figure out opportunities for me because no wanted a little guy in the big leagues.

“I had a buddy who I went to high school with and he was at South Alabama where Eddie Stanky was the coach. He told Eddie about me and that’s how I ended up there. So I practiced for two years and when I came to Southern Alabama, I knew I was going to break the college stolen base record because I had worked so hard in junior college. I figured if I could do something no one else could do, it could get me in the door. I became real close to Eddie and I learned a lot from him.”

Lance Johnson #1 of the Chicago Cubs at Spring Training at the Hohokam Park in Mesa, Arizona. (Credit: Jeff Carlick /Allsport)

Johnson would set a since-broken NCAA record with 89 steals in 1984. Texas Pan-American’s Don Guillot stole 107 bases in 1987. Johnson’s performance, combined with his work with Stanky and the connections his manager had in baseball led to Johnson being drafted by St. Louis in 1984 [sixth round]. Stanky’s close friend was George Kissell, the scout, player and instructor who spent nearly seven decades working for the Cardinals, and that played a role in Johnson being drafted.

“Not only did Eddie speak up for Jackie Robinson, he took care of me by plugging me in with St. Louis and his best friend George Kissell,” Johnson said. “George Kissell was probably the best baseball teacher ever. I had Stanky and Kissell and that’s a lot of baseball knowledge, more than 100 years between the two of them. They were simply smarter than everyone, which helped me.”

Johnson took what he had learned and headed to Erie of the Rookie-Level New York-Penn League, where he would finish first in hits [96] and runs [63], second in steals [29] and fifth in batting [.339]. He moved up to St. Petersburg of the Class-A Florida State League in 1985, hitting .270 with 33 steals and 55 RBIs. Johnson’s 1986 season in the Double-A Texas League would be his last full season in the minors and he made it count, leading the circuit in steals [49] for Arkansas.

He would begin 1987 at Louisville of the Triple-A American Association and hit .333 with 42 steals in 116 games, ultimately earning league MVP honors. He had a brief call-up in July [he went 0-for-3 in three games] before an August recall landed him in the middle of a pennant race. St. Louis would edge out the defending World Champion Mets and the Montreal Expos to win the NL Eastern Division before defeating the Giants in a seven-game National League Championship Series. Johnson would play a minor role along the way, hitting .220 in 59 at-bats with six stolen bases. His first big-league hit was a double off Cincinnati’s Bill Gullickson on Aug. 23.

Johnson appeared in one game, stole a base and scored a run in the NLCS. He also appeared in one World Series game – the Cards dropped a thrilling seven-game set to the Twins – and once again stole a base. He felt as if he could have done more.

“I ended up taking the backdoor into the World Series with St. Louis,” Johnson said. “I think we could have won. I talked to [manager] Whitey [Herzog] about it later on. Being a rookie at the time, I wasn’t going to tell Whitey Herzog what to do. We had Vince Coleman hitting first. We would have won if he hit me ninth. We won all our home games and Vince wasn’t having a good series. If he had hit me ninth and I got hot one game, we would have won in six games instead of losing in seven.

“When I talked to Whitey about it later he asked why didn’t you come up to me and tell me. I was just a rookie and happy to be there. I sat on the bench and if they needed me, I’d be there. Later on when I looked at it, I think we would have won if he let me DH.”

SO LONG ST. LOUIS, HELLO CHICAGO

Johnson wouldn’t get the chance to have too many more discussions with Herzog, though, because the Cardinals traded him to the White Sox, along with Ricky Horton, for Jose Del Leon on Feb. 9, 1988. Though Johnson would spend parts of the next two seasons with Vancouver of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League, the move had set him on the path towards his becoming a Major League star.

The trade also didn’t disappoint Johnson. He had taken a great deal away from his time with St. Louis. His time with Kissell, his brief time with Herzog and getting to watch Coleman all contributed to the player he would become.

Coleman was the 1985 NL Rookie of the Year and was, at the time, the National League’s equivalent to Ricky Henderson. He stole 110 bases in ’85 followed by 107 and 109 before dipping to seasons of 81, 65 and 77 steals, respectively. Johnson saw Coleman’s career as a cautionary tale.

“I broke the college stolen base record and my goal was to be the all-time stolen base leader,” Johnson said. “That was one of my goals as I go to the White Sox. Think about it for a second. I stole 89 bases in 69 college games. How many do you think I could steal in 162? There was a guy that knew I was going to start doing that he told me not to do it and it made sense.

“Vince Coleman was one of the original rabbits and I was like him. I was a little younger than Vince and I watched what happened to him. He stole 100 and 100 and 100 and then dropped. You work to put up certain numbers and if you don’t put them up the next year and you drop to 50 they are saying you lost two or three steps. That’s the reality of the game. So I stole 25-35 bases and did just enough to get to 10 years. I didn’t try to steal 100 every year.”

Johnson opted to view the trade in a positive light and still does. For starters, he was getting off the rock-hard turf at Busch Stadium, which would preserve his legs. Secondly, he was going to an organization that was giving him a chance that he might not have had in St. Louis.

Lance Johnson #1 of the Chicago Cubs in action during the game against the Cincinnati Reds at Wrigley Field in Chicago, Illinois. The Cubs defeated the Reds 4-2.

“I was a real hard worker and I can tell you this,” Johnson said. “You know there are a lot of organizations that have a player in Triple-A that they are getting ready for the big leagues, but they keep him there as an insurance policy and he’ll never make it. I worked so hard that the St. Louis organization didn’t do that to me. They let me go and play in another organization.”

Johnson rode the Vancouver to Chicago shuttle in 1988 and ’89, appearing in 83 games for the Sox before finally landing a full-time job in 1990. That proved to be a breakout season as he hit .285 in 151 games. He had 154 hits, stole 36 bases, drove in 51 and collected nine triples in what was the first stage of an impressive run.

The coming out party continued for Johnson in 1991. He hit .274, stole 26 bases and had 13 triples to lead the league for the first of four consecutive seasons. He followed that with a 12-triple season in 1992. Johnson also had a 25-game hitting streak that year, the longest such streak by a White Sox player in 49 years. It remains the fifth-longest streak in club history [Carlos Lee is first, 28 games, 2004].

Johnson had the best season of his career to date in 1993 when he hit .311 with 14 triples and 35 steals. He began that season hitting in 14 of 15 games and was batting .373 through the second week of May. Johnson then banged out a league-leading 14 more triples in the shortened 1994 season before having the first of two banner years in 1995.

He hit .306, led the league in at-bats [607] and hits [186] while stealing 40 bases in ‘95. Though he had 12 more triples, his streak of leading the league was snapped at four. Cleveland’s Kenny Lofton topped the league with 13. Johnson also tied a White Sox club record with six hits on Sept. 23 in Minnesota – three of his hits were triples. He is one of five Chicago players to achieve that mark, the last of which was Alex Rios on July 9, 2013 in Detroit.

“The White Sox got good when I got there,” Johnson said. “Not because of me. We had [GM] Larry Himes running the show and [scouting director] Al Goldis. We had a good mixture of veterans and young guys and they were all buying into what was going on. I also learned a lot from the older guys while I was there.

“I did pretty well there. Here’s what happened, though. I went over there and if they let me bat leadoff, you can go back and look, if they let me bat leadoff, we would be playing for the World Series for a couple of years. They hit me seventh and were able to keep me there which was a smart business move by [owner] Jerry Reinsdorf.”

NEW YORK, NEW YORK

The White Sox, surprisingly, let Johnson walk after 1995. He signed with the Mets, who were managed at the time by Dallas Green. Green was well aware of what Johnson could do because his son, John, who is now the global cross-checker for the Dodgers, played on the same Trion College team. So Johnson, at age 32, went to New York and had a career-defining season.

Johnson led the National League in hits with a career-high 227, in triples with a career-high 21, at-bats with a career-high 682 and plate appearances with a career-best 724. He also hit a career-high .333, stole 50 bases, made his only All-Star team and garnered some MVP votes.

“Sometimes it shows you what a player is capable of doing when he is let loose and not micromanaged,” Johnson said. “There are a lot of guys that could probably put up better numbers but some coaches don’t let you do it.

“The funny coincidence is that I lead the league in hits and then I end up in New York. I used to play with Dallas’ son so he knew all about me. Me playing with his son, he had been following me the whole time and he was able to get me. He knew exactly what he was getting before the Mets knew because he knew me in JUCO. I liked playing for Dallas.”

The Mets didn’t seem to care too much for Green, though, replacing him with Bobby Valentine with a month left in the 1996 season. Valentine would go on to manage the team for another six years, leading them to a pair of playoff appearances, including the 2000 World Series.

New York was a .500 ball club through the first six weeks of the 1997 season. Johnson was hitting .296 on May 1 but was sidelined by leg issues through the middle of June. The Mets were nine games above .500 and in fourth place as July unfolded. Interleague play had begun earlier that year and the Mets were in Detroit for a three-game set [June 30-July 2], a series in which Johnson believed the club would have done well had his advice been taken. Instead, the Mets gave up 31 runs in the three games and were swept.

“We were in Detroit and you know how you have team meeting about the hitters and pitchers before a series?” Johnson said. “Well, we were having the meeting and remember I was in the American League for several years. Bobby had been over in Japan. [In the meeting] I’m hearing how they wanted to pitch to these hitters and I raised my hand like I was a kid in school.

“I said no disrespect intended but who are our scouts because they wanted to pitch Detroit inside for games in that cracker-jack box [Tiger Stadium] we were playing in. I told them if we pitch them inside we are going to get swept. They didn’t believe me. After we lost the first game [14-0] I said if we pitch them inside again, we’re going to get our asses kicked again.”

Maybe Johnson’s outspokenness rubbed some people the wrong way in New York. He challenged Valentine and that may have provided the spark that would ultimately lead to him being traded.

Lance Johnson, center fielder for the Chicago White Sox, slides safely into second base as California Angels second baseman Torey Lovullo awaits the ball during their game at Anaheim Stadium in Anaheim, California.

“We weren’t playing good and reason we weren’t playing good was because Bobby was micromanaging the team,” Johnson said. “Bobby is one of the smartest baseball guys around; believe me when I tell you that. But it was totally wrong for him to be micromanaging at that point. There are some guys that know how to play and those are veterans. Don’t micromanage veterans. The younger guys you might have to tell them what to do until they learn it.

“That’s why we never hit our stride. They’re going to win if they don’t make that dumb trade. One of reasons I might have got traded is because I came in the dugout and told Bobby if you let us f—g play we’ll win this damn thing for you and he might not have liked it, but I didn’t care; I am a player. Things go on that people never really see.”

What could be seen, though, was that Johnson had pushed his batting average up to .309 upon his return to the lineup, had stolen 15 bases and hit six triples through Aug. 7. The Mets were 6.5 games out of first when they traded Johnson to the Cubs on Aug. 8. Mark Clark and Manny Alexander would also head to Chicago while the Mets picked up Brian McRae, Mel Rojas and Turk Wendell. McRae would hit .248 the rest of the way while Rojas [5.13 ERA for the Mets] and Wendell [4.96 ERA] were not terribly effective. Johnson hit .303 in 39 games with the Cubs.

“I had a real good time when I was with the Mets,” Johnson said. “I never really wanted to leave the Mets. If you go back and look at ’97, the Marlins were not going to win the World Series. We were, because we owned Florida. When they made the trade, I told Bobby it was a mistake. He asked me why and I said I’m not going to educate you but in two-weeks’ time, you’re going to know why. They lost [12-of-18] after I left and I was in a Cubs uniform.

“When I saw [Florida manager] Jim Leyland after the trade, I said, ‘Don’t be afraid to share some of that World Series money with me.’ He said, ‘Lance, that trade just won us the World Series.’ There was a month and a half left. We were going to win that year. It was unbelievable. I really loved New York. It’s some place to play.”

BACK IN THE WINDY CITY

Johnson’s return to the Chicago was initially a success. He played well down the stretch and helped the Cubs reach the post-season, where they were defeated by Atlanta. The honeymoon didn’t last. He was limited to 85 and 95 games, respectively, because of injuries over the next two seasons, clashing with general manager Ed Lynch over the severity of his injuries.

The disagreements with management led to Johnson being released following the 1999 season. He signed with and was released by Cleveland before the 2000 season. He then signed with the Yankees on April 2 but was released in June despite hitting .300 in limited action [18 games].

“I enjoyed playing for both sides [Mets and Yankees],” Johnson said. “The fans in New York are unbelievable. I really loved playing there and I never wanted to leave. That’s my kind of place to play. I liked playing in the big city. A lot of people are scared of it but I liked it. The fans were knowledgeable and they appreciated you. That’s the difference between Chicago and New York. Chicago catered to power hitters. They have great fans there, too, but they didn’t appreciate the little things like in New York.”

Johnson played for Colorado Springs of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League in 2001, hitting .341 in 35 games. He also played for Newark of the independent Atlantic League. He appeared in 53 games for Nashua of the Atlantic League in 2002 before calling it a career.

He spent one year as a coach with the Marlins in 2014 but preferred to be home with his children – being a dad was more important. He doesn’t watch much baseball these days, largely because the game has become unrecognizable to him.

“It’s kind of boring,” he said. “They have all these sabermetric guys who don’t know anything about baseball trying to run baseball.”

Boring is one thing Johnson never was – or is.

Covered a Mets-Astros doubleheader in 1987 and never looked back. Spent eight years at MLB.com, more than half of that as the Mets beat writer. Had one beat writer from another newspaper threaten to kill him in an elevator at the winter meetings. The other half was as MiLB.com’s staff historian. Worked three years in Philly at Comcast covering the Phillies’ minor leagues and doing weekly TV spots. Author of the popular blog The Bobblist, which covers everything A to Z in the world of bobbleheads. Really.

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