By Bob Socci
Day Two – Sunday, May 6: Norfolk Tides at Durham Bulls
The manager just about everybody in baseball knows as ‘R.J.’ sits at a desk inside a cramped office he shares with his coaching staff in the visitor’s clubhouse of the Durham Bulls Athletic Park. He is discussing the night before, when his Norfolk Tides and Durham Bulls played 44 minutes of baseball between a pair of rain delays totaling 3 1/2 hours.
Some — perhaps most — in his position would harbor lingering bitterness over what they’d consider the fiasco of an entire afternoon and most of an evening devoted to less than 2 1/2 innings. Not Ron Johnson. True, the Tides have a 3-0 lead before he has to return to coach 3rd base in about an hour and a half. That itself is surely reason to smile for someone with more than 1,200 managerial victories in the minor leagues. But Johnson’s outlook is formed more by philosophy than the practicality of an early lead in a game soon to be resumed and resolved.
“It was fine, you just sit around and wait,” Johnson says into a microphone recording words that will later be played back to a Virginia radio audience. “An old-time coach told me a long time ago when I first started breaking in…I’ll never forget him — Joe Jones, he was a coordinator for Kansas City — he said, ‘Put the uniform on, sit down, wait (and) when they tell you to take it off, take it off.’”
There’s another reason Johnson isn’t angry over the uncontrollable. It has to do with someone in a different uniform. While R.J. was playing a Saturday-night waiting game, Chris Johnson was reaching a milestone in Houston with his first major-league grand slam.
“He had a good week, two homers and six ribbies the other day and then he hit a granny yesterday,” R.J. beams with pride, and a chuckle. “And for those people who don’t know, that’s my son who plays third base for the Astros, and I’m proud of him.”
Can anything Dad do — or did as, albeit briefly, an ex-Royal and Expo — in the game top that?
“No, no. That’s the bottom line,” Johnson says, in all seriousness. “It doesn’t even come close.”
A year after joining his kid in the big leagues, as first base coach for the Red Sox, the elder Johnson is in the Orioles organization. On this Sunday his Tides and the Bulls each will wind up with a win. Norfolk’s three runs from the previous night prove the difference in a 5-2, 9-inning affair, before Durham triumphs, 2-1, in 7 innings.
Those of us witnessing the split do so with divided attention. Because in Boston an epic involving Johnson’s former and current employers makes for compelling scoreboard watching. Off to two of the spring’s most surprising starts — one for better, the other for worse — the O’s and Sox are entangled in a 6-6 tie deep into extra innings.
As they soldier into the 16th, Baltimore and Boston have utilized eight pitchers apiece. In the last of the 16th, the Orioles opt to throw a last resort at the Red Sox lineup. Chris Davis sheds his Designated Hitter label to take the mound. Six years removed from his last pitching appearance, at a Texas junior college, Davis posts a zero to prolong the proceedings. Boston counters in the top of the 17th by dispatching its DH, Darnell McDonald to the hill. McDonald doesn’t fare as well, allowing a three-run homer to Adam Jones. Davis completes another inning to end a 6-hour, 7-minute marathon. He is the first position player to win an American League game as a pitcher since Rocky Colavito in 1968.
In Durham, my mind rewinds to June 9, 2006. That’s when a backup catcher for the Bulls earned victory in relief. The game started with a matchup of the late Jose Lima and Jason Hammel, a then Devil Ray prospect and a present-day Oriole. And the first of eight Durham pitchers. In need of a ninth, the Bulls called on Kevin Cash. He completed a scoreless top of the 14th inning of a 5-5 tie, before Luis Rivas singled home Kevin Witt with the game-winner in the bottom half. Also in the Durham lineup, none other than left fielder Darnell McDonald.
Looking ahead, I experience another flashback. It’s one everybody who’s ever spent considerable time in the minors identifies with. The Tides are leaving Durham tonight for Louisville. By land, not air. That’s more than 500 miles and roughly nine hours on a bus, from Sunday evening into Monday morning. Not that any of us is worthy of sympathy, especially from others who’ve beaten the bush leagues. The ride may be long, but the Tides still travel better than most, even Triple-A contemporaries. Ours is nothing like the mode transporting fictional Durham Bulls Crash Davis and Ebby Calvin ‘Nuke’ LaLoosh, or many real-life clubs confined to the narrow seats of a single bus.
Traveling with the Tides, there’s a choice between two. On this particular trip, you can elect to recline in a wide, comfortably-cushioned seat aboard an ‘executive’ bus. Or you can choose to take a ‘sleeper’ bus outfitted with bunk beds, card tables, internet service and satellite television. This night, for this tag-along, it’s the only way to go.
Within an hour of the final pitch of Game 2, clubhouse attendants load equipment into luggage bays and leave coolers of drinks and boxes of pizza on the buses. Climbing onto the sleeper, I’m mildly surprised to see several players congregating in the front. In the past, this space was occupied mainly by staff. But my surprise is pleasant, because they’re here to watch a Stanley Cup playoff game on TV. The interest in the Devils-Flyers is mutual. I used to count on missing the best postseason in pro sports anytime a baseball trip conflicted with a hockey telecast. Tidesvision, if you will, was generally tuned to West-coast baseball, Seinfeld reruns or re-airs of Caddy Shack. All entertaining, no doubt. Still, none as passionate as the quest for the Cup.
Thankfully — even if it costs me any extra space — this year’s group of Tides include the likes of Canadian Chris Robinson and Minnesotan Jamie Hoffman, a one-time draft pick of the Carolina Hurricanes. One knows hockey as his national pastime. The other nearly made it his profession.
I take a seat on a bench alongside pitching coach Mike Griffin. Though he resides in New Jersey, ‘Grif’ is too busy to pay much attention to the Devils. Studying charts filled with copious numbers and notes, he resembles a college professor reviewing mid-terms. But in his case, Grif grades only two of the 144 tests Tides pitchers are scheduled to face in 2012. All the information is painstakingly condensed into a computer report for Oriole brass in Baltimore. He hits the send key and leans back.
The home-state Devils hold on for a Game 5 win, and the channel changes to Lakers-Nuggets. The NHL postseason gives way to the NBA playoffs. Must-see television late on a Sunday drive through the mountains of West Virginia. Not exactly wild and wonderful, but our ride could be a lot worse.
We pause at a truck-stop convenience store and re-load to continue the journey. Getting back on the bus, the TV gets turned off and lights go out. I hop into a bunk, turn on an iPod Shuffle set to a mix of relaxing jazz and classical. Smooth music for a bumpy ride. Sleep is had in intervals. At least it adds up to a decent amount by the time we roll into Louisville at about 7:30 a.m.
As father to a toddler and infant, and nighttime nemesis to family cats crowding the bed, uninterrupted sleep isn’t anything I’m used to anyway. I’m ready to start a brand new day in a different city.
Two down, eight more to go on the Tides’ longest trip of the season.
As the ballclub’s lead announcer from 2006-10, Bob splits time on the road with the Norfolk Tides calling baseball and following hockey. Tides broadcasts can be heard via www.norfolktides.com or www.espnradio941.com. For highlights of Bob’s work calling baseball, football and basketball, please visit www.bobsocci.com.