O's Johnson likes flying under the radar

O's Johnson likes flying under the radar

BALTIMORE -- It was a quick game that Saturday afternoon, with the Orioles beating his former club, the Texas Rangers, 8-6, in an official time of two hours and 45 minutes. It left plenty of time for Buck Showalter -- introduced as the Orioles manager not even three weeks prior -- to drive the 34 miles from Camden Yards to Prince George's Stadium, where the organization's Double-A Bowie affiliate was playing host to Richmond that night.

A sharp baseball mind infamous for his attention to detail and meticulous nature, Showalter wasn't just making the trip to see some of the organization's prospects; most of which he already had studied with the same precision he took to his 25-man roster. He was going to get a look at Orioles reliever Jim Johnson, who was pitching on a rehab assignment and hadn't appeared in a big league game in nearly four months. But there was one big problem with that plan when Showalter walked through the stadium's side gate in the fourth inning.

"He didn't know who I was," Johnson said, still laughing at the memory of the pair's first meeting in 2010. Showalter eventually found him after recruiting some help from another player. "He admitted it later on, that he didn't know who I was. It was fine, I don't really think it makes much of a difference."

To Johnson, who enters Thursday ranked second in the Majors in saves, notoriety never has.

Despite being one of the longest-tenured Orioles -- only Brian Roberts and Nick Markakis have been around longer -- the 28-year-old Johnson remains one of the club's most anonymous figures outside of it. His face isn't plastered on the walls of Camden Yards or used to highlight giveaways, his interviews are typically met with hesitation and he has no special celebrations on the mound, no entrance music and no exaggerated gestures to call attention to his presence in the ninth inning.

"He's always been a guy who just does his job without fanfare," said coordinator of Florida operations Dave Schmidt, who has known Johnson since he was drafted and worked with him on lengthening his stride prior to the 2008 season. The adjustment resulted in better velocity and Johnson's trademark sink.

"He's not the kind of person who is going to call attention to himself. He's the kind of guy who is going to let his performance speak for itself. And I don't expect that to change."

When there were whispers this winter of making Johnson a starter, he took it in stride. He told Showalter he was ready to come back as a rotation candidate, a setup man, a closer, whatever was best for the Baltimore Orioles. When he was officially named ninth-inning man, Johnson was shocked to find a group of reporters awaiting his comment. To him, it was hardly "earth-shattering" news.

"When you walk by him every day, you know his ego doesn't get involved," Showalter said of Johnson. "Some people, you just like how they perform. There are some guys you like how they perform and you like them. Jimmy's sincere. He's always engaged in the team and the competition. He might not wear it on his sleeve, but it's burning."

The pressure of the ninth inning has never been an issue with Johnson, who grew up around real disasters and life-threatening situations as a volunteer firefighter for West Corners Fire Station in upstate New York. Had he not signed with the Orioles -- and committed to fall instructional league -- Johnson would have suited up in an entirely different uniform in the days after September 11, 2001. His firehouse was among those summoned to aid in relief from the attacks.

"He's unflappable; he just doesn't move," said pitching rehab coordinator Scott McGregor, who coached Johnson for three years in the Minors and eventually was asked to marry the pitcher and his wife, Liz, on November 9, 2007.

"Last year we were having lunch and he's taking classes online [at State College of Florida] after the game. Jimmy just seems to have it together. He's a credit to the human race."

Johnson has completed about a year's worth of credits toward his associates degree and has a perfect 4.0 GPA. He is not sure what he wants to do when baseball is over, but he knows he has to do something. It's not in his nature to leisurely sit around; he couldn't even handle that when he was on the disabled list. Instead, Johnson used his free time while rehabbing in extended Spring Training to initiate the Orioles' involvement with the Miracle League of Manasota, an organization dedicated to allowing people with any disability at any age to play baseball.

"He's a very active volunteer, but didn't want anybody to know necessarily that he was involved," president of the Miracle League Bob Mitchell said of Johnson who pitched and executed the idea of running a charity golf tournament, now in its second year, recruiting 31 Orioles to participate and donate items for the event's auction this spring.

"He just had the right approach; not to create publicity for himself, but to gain funding and access for our Miracle League community," Mitchell said. "He's as solid of a citizen as there is, besides the [baseball] talent. I want 100 more like him. And not just for the Miracle League, I want 100 more like him as friends."

This spring, the Miracle League -- which is also supported by the Orioles and Pittsburgh Pirates -- was able to build a fully functional, barrier-free field with 57 players taking part in the 10-week inaugural season. Johnson was on hand for the ribbon-cutting ceremony, and prior to Wednesday's game the Orioles presented him with a $2,500 check for being named MLB's May "Delivery Man of the Month." That money will go to the Miracle League.

"I figured it made sense to use the different parties, myself, the Orioles and the community, to do some good, and it just kind of snowballed," Johnson said on his charity efforts. "If you are in a situation to help, why not?"

But as much as he has facilitated off the field, Johnson's presence in the ninth inning -- he has converted 27 of his last 28 saves dating back to last season -- has truly catapulted the team's surprising success. His effort rarely is the story, but Johnson prefers it that way. So long as the Orioles keep winning, the right-hander is happy just doing his job, and adding some long-missing consistency to the final three outs.

"That's what I love about him: He's as old school as you want to get," said McGregor, who marveled at what Johnson's presence did last September when he was the handed ninth-inning duties over struggling closer Kevin Gregg.

"He didn't say anything, but when he took his towel out to start stretching [in the sixth inning] the whole atmosphere of the bullpen changed," McGregor said. "I don't even know if [Johnson] realized that. I sat there and I just watched it. It was amazing to see how he led that bullpen."

"People weren't watching [last year]," said setup man Pedro Strop, who credits Johnson's focused bullpen routine with helping him create his own. "People are watching his numbers now. His name is big: It's Jim Johnson. The best closer in the league right now."

Just don't look for that closer to start changing now, and sporting a Brian Wilson-type beard or thumping his chest after his next save.

"That's not me," Johnson said. "Did you ever see Barry Sanders celebrate a touchdown? We have 100-something more games to play still. I'd rather use my energy throwing, than celebrating. If it's to get to the playoffs, maybe you will see a fist bump or something."

Then Johnson stops, smiles and reverts back to his old demeanor, the unassuming manner that blended him into that bullpen in Bowie, until he got up to pitch.

"I don't know. Just shake your hands, and get out of here."

Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, Britt's Bird Watch, and follow her on Twitter @britt_ghiroli. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.