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 Vi-tale 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.