Johnson giving Royals multiple lineup options
Versatile veteran is capable of filling any spot in the infield or outfield
CHICAGO -- Elliot Johnson grew up in Thatcher, Ariz., a small town in an area where there were a lot of reminders of Old West history. He heard tales of Geronimo, Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp and the wild and woolly town of Tombstone.
"Tombstone was in our conference, believe it or not, so we played them," Johnson said. "It was kind of a joke, their football field was their baseball field, so right field was about 200 feet, so it was pretty easy to hit it over there."
Johnson says you could see Boot Hill from the football field and the O.K. Corral was just a couple blocks away. History, though, was just something that Johnson heard about. He was rooted in the present, notably the football and baseball fields and basketball courts that Thatcher High's teams frequented.
Johnson was good enough to be offered college scholarships in football and basketball, but this was a baseball family. His father, Robert, was a mechanic who loved the game.
"He wanted all of us to play for the Cubs. He grew up not far from here in Chicago," Johnson said. "He's a big baseball guy, so we played pretty much every day. As soon as he'd get off work, we'd go take BP, he'd throw to us forever. He was a huge Cubs fan."
Robert Johnson had five sons -- three of them were drafted by Major League clubs. Oddly enough, Elliot was not drafted, but was signed as a free agent by Tampa Bay out of high school. And he's the only one of the Johnson brothers who has reached the Major Leagues.
Johnson slipped into the Royals' picture quietly. When pitchers James Shields and Wade Davis arrived from the Rays to big fanfare in a whopper trade, there was a P.S. to it. Kansas City would get one of those mystery men, "a player to be named." Long about mid-February, as the Royals' training camp was getting cranked up, it was, "Psssst, that player is Elliot Johnson."
He turned out to be a personable guy with an easy smile who'd spent 11 years in the Tampa Bay organization, most of the last two with the Major League club. Johnson was known as a utility player, primarily a shortstop, but capable of filling any spot in the infield or outfield.
With that background, Johnson has become the poster child for manager Ned Yost's emphasis on position versatility. Yost wants players that can move around, expanding and enhancing his late-inning options.
So in Spring Training, the skipper had first baseman Eric Hosmer and second baseman Chris Getz trying the outfield. Johnson and fellow backup Miguel Tejada were all over the infield. Yost already knows that left fielder Alex Gordon can play third base or first if needed.
With a game on the line, Yost might want to use superswift outfielder Jarrod Dyson as a pinch-runner or pull somebody for a pinch-hitter. A position needs to be filled.
"I like options I can trust," Yost said.
He figures Johnson is about as trustworthy as he can find.
"He's extremely versatile. Depending on situations, I can put him anywhere in the field and feel good about it," Yost said. "Switch-hitter, puts the ball in the play. He can do a lot of things. He was a very impressive player for me. I've seen him from afar and was never that impressed with him. Until you get a chance to see him play every day. He probably impressed me more than anybody we had in camp with his abilities."
For Johnson, 29, the 2012 season was his only year spent entirely in the Majors. Most of the previous 10 years were logged in the Minor Leagues, notably with the Triple-A Durham Bulls of 1988 movie fame.
"Obviously, the movie is what made it great and what turned that franchise into such a fan favorite or country favorite," Johnson said. "Really they're one of the most lucrative or recognized franchise in the Minors Leagues in the country. Obviously, 'Bull Durham' and Kevin Costner bringing that movie together is what did it."
Johnson liked the North Carolina city so much that he's made it his permanent home.
Along the Minor League trail, Johnson once was named the fastest baserunner in the California League and as having the best strike-zone discipline in the Rays' system.
"I played with him for two years in the Minor Leagues. He played his heart out, man," Davis said. "He's not the guy you look at and say, 'He's going to be a big leaguer,' but just the way he plays, man, he gets after it and runs his butt off. He gets every ounce of ability out of himself."
Johnson certainly outdid himself in 2004, when he was playing for Class A Charleston. He hit four home runs in four at-bats in four consecutive innings. The first blast came in the last inning of a doubleheader on May 27, at Greensboro. In the next day's game, Johnson hit homers in the first three innings.
"I mean, it's amazing to even get up the first, second and third innings," Johnson said. "And to hit home runs! Obviously, I needed a lot of help from the guys to get on base as well. It was in the old Greensboro park, the last year it was there. It's a little bit short to right, but the last one would've gone out of any park for sure."
That year, in 126 games for Charleston, Johnson totaled just six home runs -- four of them in the four successive at-bats in four innings.
"That's baseball for you," Johnson said.
Oh, while playing for Double-A Montgomery in 2006, Johnson arranged to propose to his wife, Nicole, between home plate and the mound. Not at a game or with a crowd, just a simple kneeling down at mid-day and offering the ring.
"She liked it, she dug it," he said.
On the baseball field, Johnson is a versatile guy.
Dick Kaegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.