The Twitter account for the High Heat Stats website often reminds us of special baseball anniversaries and “on this date” stuff. Today was a weird blast from the past. On this day, in 1999, the Blue Jays fired their manager, Tim Johnson. But not because he was a bad manager. Indeed, in 1998 the Jays won more games than they did in any season between 1993 and 2015. No, they fired him because he lied about his military service.
It all started with a grain of truth, as many of the stories of military imposters do. Johnson was, in fact, in the military at one time. Specifically, the Marine reserves. Following his training as a mortarman in 1966, he went into the minor leagues and, while he fulfilled his obligations in the reserves, he never saw active duty.
During his playing career, which consisted of seven major leaguer years before his retirement in 1979, Johnson would share stories about seeing duty in Vietnam, but no accounts of this time claim that his stories were particularly elaborate or particularly common. He began scouting and coaching in 1980 and the form seemed to hold. After he joined Boston’s coaching staff in 1995, however, the stories blossomed and the details became more vivid. He would use examples of firefights and marching through the jungle as motivational tools. After he became the Blue Jays manager for the 1998 season he shared a story, 100% fabricated as all of his stories were, about inadvertently killing children in a firefight.
Johnson’s deception was uncovered after Roger Clemens tried to buy Johnson a birthday present: a motorcycle helmet with the insignia of his military unit on it. He asked Johnson’s wife which unit it was. She didn’t know Johnson had lied about his service and told Clemens that Johnson wasn’t in Vietnam. Word quickly spread among the Blue Jays and, thanks in part to a good bit of acrimony between Johnson, some of his players and his coaching staff, it was pretty ugly. Johnson lied for a little while longer but eventually came clean. He came clean publicly after the 1998 season was over, saying that it was as if a great weight had been lifted. The Blue Jays stuck with him at first, content to give him a second chance, but after spring training began it became clear that the distraction was too great. They fired him.
Johnson spent years in the wilderness after that. He managed several seasons in the Mexican League and in independent ball. Outside of a brief scouting gig with the Brewers he had no job in affiliated ball at least through 2012. I can’t find anything about him from the past few years, but this story about him from 2003 talks about the entire controversy, how it affected him and what led to his lies in the first place.
While it’s hard not to have at least some sympathy for Johnson — he had suicidal thoughts at times after he was disgraced — Johnson’s wounds were entirely self-inflicted. Lying about military service is extraordinarily low and disrespectful of those who served and, especially, those who faced combat and those who died. Sympathy, sure. Understanding and forgiveness is another matter entirely, especially from those who did serve and those whose Johnson’s lies impacted.
The dynamic of how small lies turn into big ones is pretty well understood. You get a benefit from the lie and want to get more so you enhance your lie. At some point the lie is so big it’s impossible to backtrack unless and until you’re caught in it. The specific dynamic of military imposter lying is less well-understood, but it’s not entirely inexplicable. Johnson said it began with his guilt over people he trained with going off to war while he went off to play baseball with a coveted reserve slot. It’s obvious, of course, that over time he enhanced his lies for more selfish reasons of self-aggrandizement and, indirectly anyway, career enhancement as a war story-telling coach.
Others who have been caught in such lies have cited variations on this. Some are simple cases of fraud in which someone attempts to obtain veterans’ benefits, official or otherwise. Some are quintessential cases of stolen valor, in which the liar wants to pass himself off as a military hero. Others are cases in which people actually appear to be trying to steal victimhood, in a sense. They desire the “status” for lack of a better term, or the sympathy people get from having suffered through and witnessed horrors. The psychology of it all is pretty fascinating even if the lies giving rise to it are inexcusable.
Oh well. I go years forgetting about Tim Johnson and what went down with him and the Blue Jays in 1998 and 1999, but every single time I’m reminded of it, I still can’t believe that actually happened. It’s one of the weirdest baseball stories in my lifetime.