Help! Even for a catcher who's a defensive whiz, like Charles Johnson of the Marlins, working with a Triple A quality pitching staff is a health hazard

April 26, 1998

Charles Johnson badly wants to groove. Hip-hop, funk, pop...it
doesn't matter. Johnson, the Florida Marlins catcher, is so
starved for tunes right now that he would take Al Leiter's
cacophonous AC/DC CDs, which last year threatened to shake the
teal paint from the concrete clubhouse walls. That, of course,
is impossible. For one thing, Leiter, like many of Johnson's
world championship teammates, was excised soon after the
champagne had dried on the clubhouse carpet. For another,
protocol prohibits the playing of music after a defeat. So after
a recent 4-1 loss to the Pirates in Pittsburgh, Johnson, whose
voice is as exquisitely soft as his hands, soldiers on as he has
after almost every other game this early season. He suffers in
silence.

Johnson pecks away at a paper plate of lasagna from the Good
Friday spread, which resembles the Marlins' lineup: meatless.
"Man, losing is bad," he says of Florida's streak, which tonight
has reached nine. "I miss the music and having a good time.
Losing is serious. There's nothing to smile about."

The Marlins went on to drop their next two games as well, in the
process setting records for the worst season start (1-11) and
most consecutive losses (11) by a defending world champion.
After each of those last two defeats they watched the Masters on
television with the sound dutifully muted, carrying on sparse
conversations in whispers that would make a greenside Ben Wright
sound like Dick Vitale on double espresso.

The pall over the Florida clubhouse finally lifted on April 13
with a 7-2 defeat of the Pirates, which by week's end had
touched off a respectable 4-2 run by the Marlins. When at last
Notorious B.I.G. thumped from a boom box, the responsibility for
choosing that rapper, like so many other responsibilities on a
team with eight rookie pitchers, fell to Johnson. Only 26
himself, CJ the DJ must coach, counsel and cajole a pitching
staff so green that entering this season, its biggest career
winner was its closer (Jay Powell, 11-5); that just two of its
members had made an Opening Day roster (Powell and 21-year-old
lefthander Felix Heredia); and that outfielder John Cangelosi
had pitched in more major league games (three) than three
quarters of the rotation combined (Brian Meadows, Rafael Medina
and Andy Larkin). Think of Johnson's season as a Leonardo
DiCaprio film festival: The Man in the Iron Mask meets Titanic.

"It's a challenge, no doubt about that," Johnson says. "The way
I look at it is, it can only make me better. I'm going to keep
grinding. In the tough times I think every player looks for
something to hold on to. Some guys look for home runs. The first
thing I look to hold on to is my catching. My catching is most
important to me, not my hitting."

Only three weeks into the season, Florida manager Jim Leyland is
already concerned about the wear on Johnson from having to
nursemaid this collection of often scattershot arms.
"Absolutely," Leyland says. "He's had to catch a lot of pitches
from a lot of different pitchers. I'm going to have to play
[backup] Gregg Zaun a lot more this year."

After Johnson caught 213 pitches in a 10-inning loss to the
Philadelphia Phillies on April 7, Leyland gave him an
unscheduled day off. Johnson blocked at least 12 pitches in the
dirt that night, including two with the bases loaded in the 10th
on sliders from Jesus Sanchez, a 141-pound rookie obtained in
the February trade that sent Leiter to the New York Mets. "I
wanted him to keep the slider down," Johnson says. "I told
myself, Just make sure you block it. People in the stands don't
notice it, but to me saving a run like that is as big as hitting
a home run. I love it."

Says Leyland, "Some catchers won't call breaking balls with a
runner at third. That information goes into scouting reports.
I've seen it. It takes some guts in a tie game in the ninth
inning to call a splitter. But Charles can block as good as
anybody."

Johnson won a Gold Glove again last year, his third in three
full seasons in the big leagues, with an unprecedented display
of sure-handedness. He didn't commit an error in the 123 games
in which he caught, a single-season record for a catcher, and he
extended his errorless streak over two seasons to a record 172
games. Not until Sept. 19 was he charged with his only passed
ball of the season. He threw out 44.6% of the base runners who
attempted to steal against him, second only to the Houston
Astros' Brad Ausmus in the National League.

A career .236 hitter entering 1997, Johnson also had a
breakthrough at the plate in the second half of the season,
hitting .275 with 13 home runs after making his first All-Star
team.

This season has been much different from the start. Johnson
erred on a throw to second base on Opening Day, prompting
Chicago Cubs hitter Mark Grace to crack to him, "I never thought
I'd see the day." Johnson's defense has continued to suffer, at
least statistically. Through Sunday he hadn't thrown out any of
the 11 runners who had attempted to steal on him, largely
because of pitchers who are so poor at holding runners on that
Leyland has scheduled afternoon tutorial sessions for them.
"Charles is a weapon on defense," Leyland says, "but if you
don't put yourself in position to use it, that's a no-no. And it
looks to me like he may be trying to overcompensate by rushing
his throws a little bit." Johnson also had a passed ball, and he
was hitting just .216, with three homers and 14 punchouts in 51
at bats.

Only the Atlanta Braves, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Astros
had better ERAs last season than Florida's 3.83. But because of
the off-season salary dumping by Marlins owner and former
waste-disposal baron Wayne Huizenga, as well as a rotator cuff
injury to righthander Alex Fernandez, Florida no longer has the
services of pitchers who accounted for 80% of its 1997 innings.
At week's end only the Colorado Rockies and the Arizona
Diamondbacks had worse ERAs than the Marlins' 5.51.

"With guys like [departed ace Kevin] Brown and Leiter, I knew
them so well that I could tell as soon as a slider left their
hands if it was going to bounce in the dirt," Johnson says.
"Now, I don't know who can throw a 1-and-0 changeup or a 2-and-0
slider. I'm learning. But it takes half a season, maybe a full
season."

Even Florida pitching coach Rich Dubee had never played or
coached in the majors until this year. Pregame meetings to
review opposing hitters have consisted of Johnson; Zaun, who
entered the season with all of 68 games of National League
experience; and a pitching coach and a starting pitcher who more
often than not have never seen the other team. "They keep it
pretty simple," says Meadows, a 22-year-old whom the Marlins
drafted in the third round four years ago. "Either 'this guy
doesn't hit soft stuff' or 'pound him in.' Right now CJ is
getting to know me just like I'm trying to learn the hitters. I
rely on him totally."

Meadows symbolizes Florida's predicament: The team more
resembles a Triple A outfit than a defending world champion.
With Johnson's help, Meadows, a talented righthander, is
learning to locate his changeup--albeit against major league
hitters. "For the most part, Charles will set up away," Meadows
says. "In the minors all I cared about was getting it down.
Anywhere."

Leyland and Johnson are the training wheels for their wobbly
staff. Leyland sends hand signals to Johnson for pitchouts,
pickoff attempts and stepoffs (when a pitcher backs off the
rubber to keep a runner close). Johnson calls pitches with
virtually unchecked authority. Righthander Livan Hernandez, 23,
the biggest career winner in the four-man Florida rotation
(11-4, after a 2-1 start through Sunday), threw 128 pitches in a
12-4 win over the Phillies last Thursday and shook off Johnson
only three times. Meadows shook off Johnson just once in the 224
pitches he threw in his first three starts. "And that will
probably never happen again," says Meadows of the wayward
curveball that didn't come close to the plate--Johnson had
requested a changeup--in his first big league win, a 3-2 victory
over Philadelphia ace Curt Schilling on April 15.

Meadows was not exercising veto power on his first pitch of a
game in Pittsburgh, when he nailed Johnson on the left shoulder
with a curve after Johnson put down one finger for a fastball.
"My eyes were kind of watery, and I thought I saw two fingers,"
Meadows says. "I felt bad about it. I kept apologizing to him."

At 6'2", 220 pounds, Johnson is well equipped to withstand the
rigors of a trying season. He is unusually rangy for a
catcher--he wears 37-inch sleeves--but with thighs and a
backside that cannot be accommodated by 38-inch-waist pants off
the rack, he does have the typical receiver's thick center of
gravity. What most sets him apart, however, is his devotion to
the defensive side of the game.

"Charles does everything just the way you'd want a catcher to do
it, and he works hard at it," Florida third base coach Rich
Donnelly says. "He practices blocking balls twice a week. No
other catcher in baseball does that. None."

Johnson blocks balls with his legs splayed butterfly style, the
way Patrick Roy tends goal. "When I go to block a ball, I try to
relax my body as much as I can," he says. "I want the ball to
feel like it's hitting a big bag of cotton. If my body feels
that way, I feel like the ball is not going to bounce that far
away."

Johnson also practices his footwork several times a week. It's
only during this drill, which he does at half speed, that one
can see that the quick motion he uses to position himself to
throw is actually a series of three moves: a jab step with his
right foot back and to the left, a turn of his left shoulder
toward second base and a jab step with his left foot so that it
is under his left shoulder. Johnson gets his feet in perfect
position "quicker than any catcher in baseball, and he does it
right every time," Zaun says. This explains Johnson's uncanny
throwing accuracy in the same way that Greg Maddux's consistent
mechanics explain his impeccable control.

"I scouted Florida for two weeks at one point last year," says
New York Yankees director of scouting Gene Michael. "I must have
seen Charles throw to second base 25 times--and 24 of them were
right here." Michael holds an imaginary glove inches above the
ground next to an imaginary base. "I've never seen anybody like
him when it comes to accuracy."

Johnson's arm is so powerful that he can stand on home plate and
heave a ball over the leftfield wall at Pro Player Stadium in
Miami. He maintains his arm strength with daily 10-minute
sessions during which he throws a ball from the right-center
warning track to a teammate on the leftfield foul line, a
distance of about 250 feet.

Still, his psyche may be more tested than his arm this year.
He's a quiet sort who almost never takes his mask off on the
field, and he rarely raises his voice. When his teammate and
close friend leftfielder Cliff Floyd was asked if he had seen
Johnson snap, Floyd said, "Only once this year. He struck out
with a guy on third and one out. He was muttering to himself.
That's it. Just muttering."

Johnson makes infrequent visits to the mound and in between
innings is more apt to be thinking about his next at bat than
talking shop with one of the young pitchers. "It's not really
fair to ask him to do more," Leyland says. "We're trying to
avoid that. This game's tough enough."

The Marlins could supplant the 1991 Cincinnati Reds, who lost 88
games, as the worst defending champion ever. "There's no way
around it," one Marlins veteran says. "This is going to be
ugly." Johnson insists he won't allow himself to be worn down
psychologically. Asked to explain his defense for that position,
the Gold Glover replies, "I just remind myself that it's a long
season."

No tune he ever played rings more true than that.

THREE COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL TIELEMANS [Charles Johnson attempting to catch errant pitches] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL TIELEMANS BRAIN TRUST Backup catcher Zaun, starter Meadows, pitching coach Dubee and Johnson congregated for a pregame strategy session. [Gregg Zaun, Brian Meadows, Rich Dubee and Charles Johnson] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL TIELEMANS GET 'EM NEXT TIME Cangelosi offered Johnson a consoling tap on the shoulder after another dispiriting loss. [John Cangelosi patting Charles Johnson on shoulder]

Florida's pitching coach never played or coached in the majors
before.

Leyland and Johnson are the training wheels for their wobbly
pitching staff.

"There's no doubt about it," says one Marlins veteran. "This is
going to be ugly."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)