Remembering the ignominious end to Tim Johnson’s managerial career

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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.

Myles Garrett and Mason Rudloph: meet Juan Marichal and John Roseboro

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Last night the Pittsburgh Steelers lost to the Cleveland Browns. No one is gonna be talking nearly as much about the outcome today, however, as they are the carnage.

Specifically, the carnage that led to Browns defensive end Myles Garrett getting ejected from the game after ripping Steelers’ quarterback Mason Rudolph’s helmet off, swinging it at him and connecting with Rudolph’s skull as the game came to a close. Things were already chippy as all get-out, but that obviously led to a brawl which will lead to a ton of suspensions, including a possibly record-breaking one for Garrett. For all your analysis on that, check out PFT, obviously.

The incident will dominate the sports shows today because malicious attempts to injure another player with a piece of equipment are pretty rare in professional sports. There was at least one incident in baseball history, however, that was analogous to what went down in Cleveland last night.

It took place on August 22, 1965 at Candlestick Park in San Francisco during a Dodgers-Giants game. That’s when Giants ace Juan Marichal, playing the role of Garrett, took a baseball bat to the head of Dodgers catcher John Roseboro, standing in for Rudolph.

The Dodgers and Giants are rivals, of course, and in 1965 the two teams were in a pitched battle for the N.L. pennant, with the Dodgers leading San Francisco by a game and a half as the day began.

Pitchers in 1965 were a bit more aggressive about claiming the inside part of the plate than they are today, and on that day, everyone seemed cranky. Marichal knocked Dodgers shortstop Maury Wills down with some chin music in the top of the second for, it appears, committing the terrible transgression of bunting for a single in his first at bat of the game. In response Koufax fired a fastball over Willie Mays’ head, sending the ball to the backstop. So everyone was even, yeah?

Nah. Marichal responded in the top of third with an inside fastball that sent Dodgers first baseman Ron Fairly sprawling to the dirt. At that point home plate umpire Shag Crawford issued a warning, indicating that that the next close pitch from either team would result in an ejection. Walter Alston’s Dodgers, though, were a clever bunch. Sure, maybe a close pitch was going to get an ace ejected in a pennant race, but there are other ways to buzz someone’s tower, right?

Pitchers batted in every game back then, of course, and Marichal came to bat in the bottom of the third. Koufax didn’t throw at him, though. Instead, Roseboro, catching for L.A., threw the ball back to Koufax in such a way as to have it sail close to Marichal’s head as he stood in the batter’s box. He later admitted in his autobiography that it was no accident, he was trying to intimidate Marichal.

Marichal flipped out, clubbing Roseboro with his bat, after which all hell broke loose (all photos, and the original caption from 1965, are from Getty Images):

 

Juan Marichal holding bat, John Roseboro attacked, and Sandy Koufax closes in.

 

Roseboro throws a punch at Marichal while latter swings bat and Koufax comes in to try and break it up.

 

On deck batter Giant Tito Fuentes pulls Roseboro away while Marichal wields bat at Koufax while umpire Shag Crawford and Giant coach Charlie Fox try to break it up.

 

Umpire Shag Crawford wrestles with Marichal while Dodgers Jim Gilliam (19) and Kaufax come in. Rear is Giants coach Charlie Fox. Marichal falls to the ground on top of Shag Crawford while Giants Orlando Cepeda joins the melee.

 

Umpire Shag Crawford is shown here wrestling with Marichal as Dodgers Jim Gilliam (#19) and Sandy Koufax join in. In the rear is Giants’ coach Charlie Fox.

 

Identifiable L-R: Dodger Jim Gilliam (19); John Roseboro (with chest protector); Giants Orlando Cepeda (30); Cap Peterson (17); Warren Spahn; and Mgr. Herman Franks (3).

Willie Mays was credited with keeping the brawl from getting worse. Roseboro had military and martial arts training and, as you can see in the second photo, he was not slowed by his head injury — an injury that would require 14 stitches — from trying to take Marichal apart. Mays was the one who ultimately pulled Roseboro away and out of the fracas. He even held a towel to Roseboro’s head which by then had begun to bleed profusely. The fight eventually ended, with several players sustaining injuries due to kicks and accidental spikings of hands and legs and stuff.

The incident delayed the game for 14 minutes but the fallout beyond that was pretty tame compared to today’s standards. Marichal got an eight day suspension which, because of scheduled doubleheaders, caused him to miss ten games. He was also fined $1,750, which is around $15,000 today. Roseboro only missed two games due to his injury. The Dodgers would lose this game thanks to a big homer from Mays off of Koufax, but the Dodgers would go on to win the pennant and defeat the Minnesota Twins in the World Series.

There was additional fallout: Roseboro sued Marichal for $110,000 in damages. They’d eventually settle, with Roseboro receiving $7,500 from Marichal.

But there was no lingering bad blood. In interviews after the incident both players admitted that there was much more on their minds in 1965 that might’ve contributed to their aggression on that day. There was the rivalry, of course, and the pennant race. But Marichal had been much more personally distracted by a civil war in his native Dominican Republic that raged in 1965 and would not end until September. Roseboro had been, understandably, affected by the Watts Riots in Los Angeles which had taken place just over a week before this game. When you feel helpless about situation A, you often channel your feelings into situation B and both men said that something like that was probably simmering.

Marichal would play for the Dodgers for two games in 1975, the final year of his career. Roseboro had already retired, but Marichal’s cup of coffee with L.A. allowed them to meet up at a Dodgers old-timers game in 1982. There they posed for this photo: 

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“There were no hard feelings on my part,” Roseboro told the L.A. Times in 1990. Roseboro died in 2002. Marichal was an honorary pallbearer at his funeral.

Let’s check in with Garrett and Ruldolph in 37 years to see how they’re doing.