Saturday, August 2, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Major League Baseball

The dream has passed for disgraced Tim Johnson

The Kansas City Star

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — He's been praised, loved, cursed, mocked — and now Tim Johnson sits in a visitor's dugout, watching his Lincoln (Neb.) Saltdogs take batting practice before playing the Kansas City T-Bones. This is barely professional baseball: the Northern League, home to castoffs, wannabes and dreamers.

While his former colleagues prepare for the All-Star Game in Chicago, he works in Kansas City, wondering how he ever fell this far.

"Where are the Royals tonight?" he asks.

When told it's the All-Star break, he looks shocked.

"I forgot," he says quietly. His eyes say even more: I can't believe I'm so far from real baseball that I didn't even know it was All-Star Game day.

"(Baseball) gives you a lot of good times and a lot of heartache," he says, staring out at the field.

Once upon a time, he was a big-league player and manager. His was a world of important friends and private planes. Then he was fired by the Toronto Blue Jays five years ago, his credibility shot because he'd pretended to be a Vietnam veteran. Many of those friends have abandoned him. He now rides a bus.

The lies of a simple man

Johnson's is a story of the rise and fall of a baseball man, the lies of a simple man. We all have secrets. Many stay just that. But Tim Johnson's most damning secret got out, and he's still paying for it.

"I'm trying to go on," he says, looking down. "It's so hard. When is enough enough?"

When it ended, he ran away to hide. He ran about as far as a man can go, to Clay Center, Kan. His wife's family lived there. His major-league pension was big money in Clay Center.

On the main street, a block from the bank clock/thermometer that tops 110 degrees in the summer, was his haunt — the Idle Hour Club.

It's an old pool hall, a place where men can hang out in the afternoon. Johnson had his core group of friends.

"Half of them didn't have a clue who he was," buddy Phil Francis says. "That's what he liked about it."

He loved telling stories about his past. Mostly, though, Johnson put on a happy face. He almost never talked about what happened, and no one asked. Even in his own family, it was verboten.

"You beat yourself up because you worked your whole life to get where you are — and one stupid thing and then you're done," he says. "I made a mistake, and I'm not afraid to say it."

Once or twice, he told his new friends about his biggest fear. He was gonna get blackballed from the game. He was more sure of it every day.

And when he left the bar on his yellow Harley-Davidson, he often left his smile behind, too. He thought about how easy it would be to pull out in front of a truck, ending all of this.

"If somebody said the thought wasn't in their minds," he says, "they're lying to themselves."

His life had been baseball, and he was now banished to the sideline while everyone else danced with his best girl. Here is a big-league manager sitting in a bar in a dried-up, dying town, showing the local softball coach how to help his players throw different pitches. It didn't take much to send him spinning back in time.

"I'm sure he's relived it more than once," says Gord Ash, the man who hired and fired Johnson as Toronto's general manager.

And no matter how many times he does, Tim Johnson can only watch the train wreck he created over and over. If only he could go back and tap himself on the shoulder, if only the one tiny white lie hadn't grown into 10 malignant, dark ones, if only, if only, if only ...

A great coach, a motivator

The fall of Tim Johnson is woven into the rise of Tim Johnson.

Way back when, he'd been in the Marine Corps reserves during Vietnam. By all accounts, he was an excellent soldier. But he felt guilty that friends of his died in combat while he was exempted from service to play minor-league baseball.

After an average major-league career with Milwaukee and Toronto, he came to be known as a great coach, a motivator.

When buddy Kevin Kennedy became manager of Boston in 1995, Johnson joined his staff. He was instantly beloved in the clubhouse — a man with a future.

"Wherever he goes," Red Sox first baseman Mo Vaughn once said, "I want to go with him."

Former Red Sox star Mike Greenwell remembers Johnson doing anything he could to pump up the players. He'd tell them that life was tough in the trenches and he oughta know, 'cause he'd been to 'Nam. It fired the players up. In the beginning, there were no specifics.

"I've heard the stories," Greenwell says. "To me, he was telling me you can survive, you gotta be tougher. It's so easy to go a little bit too far."

Kennedy noticed, as early as the first spring training, that Johnson was talking more about the war than ever before. Kennedy told reporters about his buddy living in rice paddies and dealing with Agent Orange.

When Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan did a story about Vietnam, Johnson had this to say: "I don't talk much about it. I never do. It's something that's passed. Let it be."

He worried about getting caught. When he was hired as manager in Toronto before the 1998 season, it looked as if he had ended the deception, casually telling a writer that he'd gotten out of Vietnam by playing baseball. It was over, the chain broken, and no one would ever know.

But Johnson didn't stop.

His Blue Jays were going to Boston's Fenway Park, and he wanted to pump up pitcher Pat Hentgen. With pitching coach Mel Queen listening in, Johnson told his guy there were often tough things to do in life. He told a gruesome story of killing a girl and her little brother because they were in the line of fire.

Johnson had gone from a generic "in the trenches" speech to killing babies.

This time, he'd pay.

Long fall to the bottom

It takes decades to build a public life. It takes moments for it to all come crashing down. That's the moral of the Tim Johnson story for those who had ringside seats: Life can get away from you so quickly, leaving nothing but some bad late-night jokes and a long fall to the bottom.

Here's how he got caught:

There was already animosity in the clubhouse; Queen and Johnson had a very public feud. That was the scene as Johnson's birthday approached.

Johnson's wife bought him the Harley. Roger Clemens, a good friend of Johnson's and former Blue Jays pitcher, wanted to get his buddy a meaningful present. Clemens' brother was a Vietnam vet and owned a motorcycle helmet with the logo of his combat unit on it. Clemens wanted to do the same for his friend.

So he started doing some checking. He didn't have much luck. Then, he called Johnson's wife and asked her. According to friends in Clay Center, she told Clemens that Timmy didn't go to Vietnam. It wasn't intentional; she didn't know, the lie was that quiet in the Johnson home.

Enemies of Johnson found out, and the wheels came off.

"It was a thing to try to motivate," he says, "and it didn't work."

Born to manage, out of a job

His brother, Sandy Johnson, Arizona Diamondbacks assistant general manager, told him later that the subject matter killed him. A discrepancy on his résumé about college athletics came out in the wash and, suddenly, Tim Johnson was known as The Liar.

"He's not a sophisticated guy, and he's not somebody who would by design mislead people," Ash says, "but when you get into military service, that's a hot button for a lot of people."

Johnson denied it at first, finally coming clean and apologizing. But it wasn't that easy. He hung on for the rest of the year, but friends of Johnson say the situation was handled poorly by the team. Johnson was finally fired two weeks into spring training in 1999.

Oh, and in his one year as a manager? The Blue Jays won 88 games, their best since the World Series years of the early '90s. Everyone had been right. Tim Johnson was born to be a big-league manager.

Still in hiding

Johnson spent four seasons coaching a winter-ball team in Mexico City, and also briefly worked as a scout for the Milwaukee Brewers. He could have joined Felipe Alou's staff in San Francisco but instead opted for this remote outpost — several rungs below Class A ball. He's still hiding.

Johnson is having success on the field. He managed in the Northern League All-Star Game this season. Still, he doesn't talk to many of his old friends.

"You lose friends," he says. "People you think are your great friends don't call you anymore."

He can't see how many still feel about him up in the big leagues. Everywhere his brother goes, people stop and ask.

The real friends, they're still around. Get a former player on the phone, and he'll gush. The man knows everyone.

Johnson and his wife have left Clay Center; both her parents died recently. Finally, after years of nothing but low points, he doesn't dwell as much.

"I've served five years of my life already," he says. "There's a time when you've got to go on and you can't feel sorry for yourself. And I don't anymore."

The immense guilt remains

Family members say Johnson feels immense guilt for what he's put everyone through. He's still embarrassed. Sadly, as one baseball executive said, people have forgiven him more than Johnson is willing to admit. He's had job offers. He'll get them again. But his dream of being a manager has passed.

"I really doubt that he'll get that opportunity, as unfortunate as that is," Ash says.

So, with the big leagues almost out of sight, Johnson teaches kids about the game. He can help. He's a good baseball man, much better than those around him.

That got him kicked out of a game last week in Kansas City. He couldn't believe some bush-league, minimum-wage umpire could be allowed to argue anything baseball-related with him.

Later, Johnson sneaked back into the stands, wearing blue jeans and drinking a beer. Even when he's mad at the game, he can't stay away. Five years and a million miles from Toronto, Tim Johnson watches baseball — still loving the game as he always has, a love that can never be totally returned.

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company


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