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Mudville: July 18, 2024 10:46 pm PDT

Brian Johnson

"As a kid, this was the stuff I dreamed of. "

Kids who grow up as sports fans often dream big. When we were lucky enough to go to games, we daydreamed of one day being out there playing ball for the hometown team. We were unaware of the odds and thought anything was possible.

Maybe we dreamed of playing quarterback for our local college team in front of tens of thousands of people. Or maybe we’d dream of playing college baseball and winning a national championship or two.

Or maybe you were more of a pro sports fan and dreamed of hitting a walkoff home run in a pennant race to put your local team in first place on the way to a postseason berth, setting off a wild celebration in the stands.

To a kid, those dreams are what foster our love of the sport. As we grow up, almost all of us realize those dreams are far-fetched. The chances that anyone gets to experience even one of those things is so finite.

That makes it so mind-boggling that Brian Johnson got to experience all of that and he joins us for this week’s Spitballin’ to share his experience.

Johnson grew up an incredible athlete in Oakland, a hotbed for sports legends, particularly baseball stars. How incredible was he? He set the California state high school record for career hits (143), home runs (39), RBIs (164) and batting average (.530). He also set the single season state record for home runs (17) and RBIs (67).

Needless to say, he was projected to be one of the first high school players to come off the board for that year’s draft.

The only issue was that he was just as good at football.

Johnson would go on to Stanford where he was the starting quarterback for Jack Elway and Dennis Green and was a member of their 1987 and 1988 back-to-back national champion baseball teams, playing a huge role on the ‘88 team.

From there, Johnson went on to a 13-year professional baseball career, eight of which were in the Major Leagues. Johnson played two seasons with his hometown Giants and hit a huge home run for the team in the throes of the 1997 National League West pennant race.

He has lived out the dreams of so many kids in multiple sports who never had the chance to live them out themselves, so join us as we go Spitballin’ with Brian Johnson.

Catcher Brian Johnson of the San Francisco Giants in action during a spring training game against the Anaheim Angels at Cashman Field in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo: Jed Jacobsohn /Allsport)

Thanks for joining us, Mr. Johnson! We’re starting to develop a library of former MLB players who were also College Football quarterbacks, having interviewed Phil Bradley and Josh Booty recently as well. We’ll get into your Stanford days too, but first let’s go back to your childhood. What was baseball like for you as a kid?

I grew up in Oakland, California and there’s a rich tradition of baseball there with Curt Flood, Frank Robinson, Joe Morgan and a whole bunch of other guys from Oakland who had come before me. I was a big A’s and Giants fan because we had them both in the Bay Area. I used to love Chili Davis, Jack Clark and Rickey Henderson. Going back a little further, you had Rollie Fingers, Reggie Jackson, Campy Campaneris, Sal Bando, Blue Moon Odom, Vida Blue. I actually got to know Vida Blue when I was with the Giants. He was an amazing guy. I’ve always been an A’s fan first, but also rooted for the Giants, so it was amazing that I got to play with them for a couple years.

That was a great era to grow up in the Bay Area for a baseball fan! You not only had an incredible high school baseball career, but you were a multi-sport star who went on to become the starting quarterback at Stanford. Was it your goal to land at a school that let you play baseball and football?

Most schools wanted me to choose one or the other. I took a recruiting trip to the University of Michigan and Jim Harbaugh was one of my hosts. That was during the Bo Schembechler days. It was a big deal because he wanted a California quarterback. That trip was for both football and baseball, but mostly football. Football paid the freight because none of the baseball scholarships at the time were full, so I was looking for a place where I could get that football scholarship with the agreement that I could play baseball. The University of Arizona told me they would allow two-sport guys, but Michigan and Stanford were the two choices for me.

I was a throwing quarterback and Bo Schembechler tried to tell me that they were getting a new plan to throw the ball 70% of the time at Michigan. I was a big college football fan, so I knew he was lying! They were gonna run the football and when I went on my visit, it was really cold there. As a California kid, I decided I was going to stay in California and throw the ball at Stanford.

College football in the United States is a big deal. I played winter ball in Puerto Rico and Mexico and I compare that atmosphere to college football in the United States. It’s the same type of energy.

How did baseball factor into all of this?

I was going to be drafted in the first round of the baseball draft. Those conversations went on all the way up until the draft. I had a long conversation with my mom and she told me that if I was going to sign [in baseball], then I had to honor my word. But if I wasn’t going to sign with a baseball team, then I needed to call them all back and tell them I was going to college so somebody didn’t lose their job for drafting me. I called back three different teams and asked them not to draft me because I was going to college to play football and baseball. The Montreal Expos ended up taking me in the 31st round. I got the only telegram I ever got in my whole life; it was from Gary Hughes, a longtime scout. It just said that if I changed my mind, the Expos were here for me.

You played 27 games at quarterback in three seasons for Jack Elway and Dennis Green at Stanford. It’s probably tough to do, but can you summarize your Stanford football career?

It was great. We had a lot of fun. College football in the United States is a big deal. I played winter ball in Puerto Rico and Mexico and I compare that atmosphere to college football in the United States. It’s the same type of energy. We had a lot of great players come through Stanford at that time. My last year I got to play for Dennis Green. Brian Billick, who would go on to win a Super Bowl with the Ravens, was our wide receivers coach. Tyrone Willingham was our running back coach and Fred von Appen was our defensive coordinator. We had a lot of great coaches along with Coach Green. Touchdown Tommy Vardell was a little younger than me, but we played together for two years.

April 8, 1996: Catcher Brian Johnson of the San Diego Padres with a couple of mini San Diego Chickens before a game against the Florida Marlins at Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego, California.

We’re kind of burying the lede here with the baseball team at Stanford though. You were on those back-to-back National Championship teams in 1987 and 1988. What was your experience like being part of those historic teams?

My freshman year, we won it against Oklahoma State, but I didn’t play a lot. I didn’t play in the World Series, so I was champing at the bit my second year to get the chance to compete in the World Series. That second championship was a little sweeter for me. I did well in the regionals and had the game-winning hit in the finals, even though Eddie Sprague got credit for it in the papers! We played against Arizona State, the number one seed, in the championship game. I got to play against a childhood friend of mine, John Finn, who was probably their best player at that time. It was cool to have that homegrown connection on the national level. We had a great team and a lot of great players. I believe up to that point, the record for players off of one college championship team making it to the Majors was nine. I believe I was the tenth one off my Stanford team to make the Majors, breaking the record of Roger Clemens’ Texas team.

That’s pretty incredible off of one team! You made your debut in 1994, making the Padres out of spring training. Can you take us back to that experience of learning you were going to be a Major Leaguer?

I had a really good season the year before in AAA, almost winning the batting title, and I thought I was going to get a September call-up. It didn’t happen and I was pretty bummed. That next spring training was a big deal to me. Mike Scioscia was one of our catchers and he was in his last spring training. He is such a great guy. He took us all out to lunch and tried to mentor us. He gave us everything he had to give from a strategy standpoint. I had a pretty good camp and to make the Padres out of camp was great. Brad Ausmus and I were going to be the two catchers. They made a big deal out of the Stanford and Dartmouth connection with us. San Diego was an up-and-coming franchise and had a new owner in John Moores. Larry Lucchino, who just passed away, was the driving engine of making San Diego a great organization. It was fun to grow up with the front office staff. We were all young in the game together. Theo Epstein started off there too; that was before he went to law school. That mid-90s run had a real familial type of atmosphere.

Detroit Tigers catcher Brian Johnson makes a diving catch on a foul ball hit by Kansas City Royals center fielder Johnny Damon during the a spring training game at Marchant Stadium in Lakeland, Florida. (Photo: TONY RANZE/AFP via Getty Images)

That 1994 season had the long work stoppage. One of the main things that fans bring up about that season was that they were robbed of the chance to see Tony Gwynn chase .400. I always enjoy hearing stories about Tony Gwynn from his former teammates. What were your thoughts on him?

A great hitter and amazing athlete. He was going to be a free agent the next year I believe. There were some whispers that he might go to Philadelphia or some other team. We had some great conversations that spring training. Everyone else was gone and it was just me and him in the locker room. He really didn’t want to leave. He was a little shy and a little overweight and he felt the San Diego fans really loved him for who he was. They didn’t care what he looked like as long as he played hard and did well. That 1994 season he had was amazing. The thing that I remember most was that we had the lockout and Tony had a big team meeting with us. Tony nominated me to be the union representative even though I was a rookie. He didn’t like being a part of those things, so I ended up being the union rep during one of the most important times for that in history. That was a big education for me.

I see that 1996 season as the fruition of that up-and-coming status that you mentioned. You guys own the NL West by going into Los Angeles the last series of the year down one game and swept the Dodgers to pass them. What was that series and season like for you?

It was amazing. Ken Caminiti put us on his shoulders and took us through. Unfortunately, he was on steroids and that became a bigger issue after that with the Sports Illustrated story. That was the first chip off the iceberg of steroids in baseball. But during 1996, nobody was talking about that even though a lot of the guys were on them. Going into Dodger Stadium that last series we needed to win all three and were definitely the underdogs. It was amazing to sweep them and be a part of it. Bob Tewksbury pitched the last game on the Sunday and was great. One of the most satisfying things to me that I read the next day in the paper was that after we won that last game on Sunday, the fans at the San Diego Chargers game gave us a standing ovation back home in San Diego.

1996: Catcher Brian Johnson of the San Diego Padres tags out leftfielder Ron Gant of the St. Louis Cardinals during a game at Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego, California. (Credit: Stephen Dunn /Allsport)

That is really cool! You were traded to the Tigers that offseason and then went over to the Giants at the trade deadline, which put you in the postseason for the second straight year. You had perhaps the biggest hit for the Giants down the stretch with your walkoff homer in Game 153 to put the Giants in first place to stay. Fans still call it the Brian Johnson Game. First, what was it like being a part of that team?

I came in at the all-star break and they were already in first place. The fans really connected with the personalities on that team. It was a great group of guys that really enjoyed playing together. That season was fun and that game was great, especially because it was against the Dodgers. That series didn’t ultimately decide the division, but it was pretty close to it. We had to break the Dodgers’ wall of dominance. They had done well for about ten years and we hadn’t done well during that time. In 1997, there was still residue from the lockout and strike. Fans were still angry with the players, the organizations and baseball in general. The personalities we had on that team—Darryl Hamilton, Billy Mueller, JT Snow, Glenallen Hill, Rich Aurilia, Kirk Rueter—the fans really had fun with. Jeff Kent had come over in a trade and of course we had Barry Bonds. Bonds brought a complexity to things, but also a greatness.

Now on to that home run. I just watched the video replay of it and it was really incredible. First pitch of the bottom of the 12th and the fans went crazy. The floor is yours to talk about it.

That home run that I was fortunate enough to hit was great. It was 5-5 in the 12th inning. We were up 5-1 and they came back to tie it. The Candlestick winds were really blowing. Eric Karros hit a ball that should have been a home run, but got knocked down by the wind. My home run was a line drive that cut through the wind. Being a local kid, hitting that important home run was great. I had one coach, James Hill who was discriminated against as a black ballplayer in the 1950s and he was a big mentor of mine and another, Joe Piniella who was a white Italian guy who got stuck in the minor leagues because there was no free agency and there was a backlog of talent ahead of him. They were never able to get an opportunity to be in the big leagues, so after that home run, I raised my fist up in tribute. I was saying, “I made it here, I’m in a big moment, and I want to share this with you.”

That’s tremendous that you didn’t lose sight of those guys and appreciated the mentoring they gave you. You mention being the local kid and going to Candlestick as a kid. What was it like going home to continue your career?

When I was young, I was a ballboy for a softball team and the guy who owned the team had season tickets for the Giants, so he would take us to games at Candlestick. We were there for one of the Dodgers-Giants fights when Davey Lopes went into the stands. The A’s games we used to go to bat day. We used to get a full-sized green A’s Louisville Slugger bat with a signature on them. They were weapons! We didn’t know any better, we were amazed to get a bat that day. They switched to the little souvenir bats later on. Those are the things I remember as a kid. Then to get traded to the Giants and play for one of my best friends in Dusty Baker was a great two years.

You played for some big managerial names besides Dusty too. Guys like Bruce Bochy, Jack McKeon and Buddy Bell among others. What did you think of the managers you had the chance to play for?

I really enjoyed Dusty and Bruce Bochy. Jim Riggleman too. Those were the three best managers I played for. I played for Jim only a short time in AAA, but I played against him when he was manager for the Cubs. But for me, Dusty is 1A and Bochy is 1B with Riggleman right there too. Jack McKeon, it was late in his career and I didn’t think he did a very good job. I didn’t respect him a whole lot. He didn’t know anybody’s name and just was grumpy. He had a great staff with Ken Griffey Sr. and Don Gullett and they did mostly everything.

Tony Muser was great in KC and I enjoyed playing for Buddy Bell in Detroit, even though we didn’t do very well. There was some political stuff going on in Detroit because Randy Smith was the GM of Detroit and kept trading with San Diego. When I came over from San Diego, Buddy wasn’t too happy having yet another Padre, but we got along fine. I was blessed to play for some very good managers and ones that weren’t very good. I played for a couple that weren’t very good in the minors, but you learn from that. If all the managers you played for were the same, you wouldn’t be able to tell what the difference was. Another of my favorite managers to play for was Brian Butterfield. He was a longtime respected coach with the Red Sox for their World Series and the Blue Jays among some other teams.

This has been great and I appreciate the time you took to share your stories. Last question for you. You went from that tremendous athlete as a kid in the Bay Area who loved baseball to grow up to play quarterback at Stanford, win two baseball National Championships there and then play Major League Baseball for eight years, including two for your hometown Giants. What thoughts come to your mind when you reflect on what you were able to do in your athletic career?

It comes down to gratitude and being grateful to be around so many great players and coaches. They were special times and special moments. As a kid, this was the stuff I dreamed of. Many kids would give their pinkie to be in some of the situations I had the chance to be in. I still pinch myself sometimes and am grateful to be in those moments. I am grateful to God for the opportunities that have been put in front of me on and off the field. It’s been a good ride and when I’m all done, I’ll be a pretty happy guy.        

Rocco is a baseball writer with too much time on his hands who lives in the dusty corners of Baseball Reference. He was one half of the battery for the 1986 Belleville Recreation Farm League Champion Indians. He likes early 20th century baseball nicknames, pullover polyester jerseys and Old Hoss Radbourn. He works as a College Athletics Director and his second book was released in April of 2021.

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