By Kevin Glew
Cooperstowners in Canada
Ron Johnson, who played five games with the Montreal Expos in 1984, passed away from complications from COVID-19 in Morrison, Tenn., on Tuesday at the age of 64.
According to a report in the Providence Journal, Johnson had tested positive for COVID-19 and had been battling symptoms in the week prior to his death.
Following his playing career, Johnson became a beloved minor league manager in the Kansas City Royals, Boston Red Sox and Baltimore Orioles organizations for more than three decades. He also served as the first base coach for the big league Red Sox in 2010 and 2011 when his former Expos teammate Terry Francona was the club’s manager.
“We were devastated to learn of the passing of our friend and former colleague, Ron Johnson,” Red Sox general manager Brian O’Halloran said in a statement on Tuesday. “RJ was instrumental in helping countless Red Sox players reach and succeed in the big leagues, and was an important contributor to two World Series championships. His kindness, sense of humor, love of family and passion for the game of baseball stood out among many wonderful qualities. We would like to express our heartfelt condolences to RJ’s wife, Daphne, his five children, and the many people inside and outside the game of baseball who loved him.”
Born in Long Beach Calif., in 1956, Johnson was selected in the 24th round of the 1978 MLB draft by the Kansas City Royals out of California State University. The 6-foot-3, 215-pound first baseman/outfielder would play parts of five seasons in the Royals’ organization before making his major league debut with the club in 1982. He’d bat .268 in 17 games for the Royals in 1982 and 1983 before he was dealt to the Expos on December 15, 1983 for pitcher Tom Dixon.
Johnson began the 1984 season with the Expos’ triple-A Indianapolis Indians managed by Buck Rodgers. The then-28-year-old was used primarily as a DH and was leading the American Association with a .343 batting average when he was called up by the Expos on June 6.
“I couldn’t believe it when Buck called,” Johnson told The Indianapolis News after being promoted. “I still don’t believe it. I planned to be here all year. I wasn’t invited to the major league camp. I wasn’t on the 40-man roster. I never even thought about it (making it with the Expos). I just wanted to have a good year and hopefully make a good impression with some other organization.”
Despite boasting a lineup that featured Tim Raines, Andre Dawson, Gary Carter, Pete Rose and Tim Wallach, the Expos were struggling to score runs, so they felt Johnson could help them offensively.
“They say the way he’s swinging a bat he has the best chance to help us,” Expos manager Bill Virdon told the Montreal Gazette about the club’s decision to call up Johnson. “This give us one more pinch-hitting possibility.”
And the Expos didn’t wait long to use Johnson in that role. On June 8, he pinch-hit for Expos starter Steve Rogers in the bottom of the fifth inning at Olympic Stadium and struck out against Mets right-hander Ed Lynch. The Expos eventually lost 4-1.
Johnson’s sole hit with the Expos came in a pinch-hitting appearance the following day. With the Expos trailing the Mets 5-2 with one out in the bottom of the ninth and runners on first and second, Johnson was sent up to bat for reliever Gary Lucas. He promptly singled to right field off reliever Doug Sisk to plate Doug Flynn and then was removed for pinch-runner Miguel Dilone. The Expos didn’t get any closer and dropped the contest, 5-3.
Johnson had three more appearances for the Expos and in two of those, he spelled Pete Rose at first base in the late innings. His last game with the Expos came on June 22 and that would also be his final major league game. He was sent back down to triple-A Indianapolis on June 29.
Johnson played one more season in triple-A before becoming a manager in the Kansas City Royals organization at the class-A, double-A and triple-A levels prior to moving on to the Red Sox.
He skippered class-A and double-A squads in the Red Sox chain before becoming the manager of the triple-A Pawtucket Red Sox from 2005 to 2009. The following year, he was promoted to be the first base coach on Francona’s big league staff.
Johnson was let go by the Red Sox after the 2011 campaign when Francona’s tenure with the club ended. He was then hired to be the dugout boss of the Baltimore Orioles’ triple-A Norfolk Tides and worked in that position from 2012 to 2018.
“The Orioles are devastated to learn of the passing of former Norfolk Tides manager Ron Johnson,” the Orioles said in a statement on Tuesday. “In his seven years at the helm of Baltimore’s triple-A affiliate, Ron led countless players in their journey to the big leagues. He was recognized for his leadership and passion for the game of baseball as a two-time recipient of the Cal Ripken Sr. Award (2018 and 2015), given to a Minor League staff member who exemplifies Ripken’s qualities as an instructor leading by ‘The Oriole Way.’ The Orioles extend their heartfelt condolences to his wife, Daphne, his five children, and the rest of his family and friends as they mourn this incredible loss.”
Johnson’s son, Chris, followed in his footsteps and was an infielder for eight major league seasons with the Houston Astros, Arizona Diamondbacks, Atlanta Braves, Cleveland Indians and Miami Marlins from 2009 to 2016. He was recently named hitting coach of the Chicago White Sox triple-A Charlotte Knights.