Column: Escondido-based former MLB scout, player recalls journey, critiques today’s game


Longtime Escondido resident Randy “Rags” Johnson, who worked in Major League Baseball as an infielder, scout and minor league field coordinator across four-plus decades, finds himself out of professional baseball for the first time in 44 years after he and the Detroit Tigers parted in November.

The youngest of four children, Johnson received an early grounding in baseball from his father, Norm.

When his job as a traveling electrician allowed, Norm played pepper with his three sons in the family’s backyard in west Escondido.

“We each had to catch 100 balls, mostly one-hoppers, before we could go inside,” Johnson said.

Johnson, whose oldest sibling, Judy, became a professional bowler, excelled as a baseball infielder and football kicker with Escondido High and Palomar College before a football scholarship took him to San Jose State. The California Angels drafted and signed Johnson’s brother, Don, whose pitching career was cut short by an arm injury. Supporting the four children who included Norm Jr. was their mom, Sarah.

At San Diego Stadium, Johnson performed as a Pop Warner quarterback, a collegiate kicker and a Braves infielder who batted .324 in 34 at-bats there.

He played professional baseball for 13 years including three seasons with Atlanta, beginning in 1982. Then he went into scouting with the Padres, whose minor league games at Westgate Park he had attended as a boy.

It was Henry Aaron who brought Johnson to the Braves’ organization, via a minor league trade. It was Barry Bonds who faced him when he was summoned into emergency relief. In his final full season as a player, Johnson found himself at odds with Dick Williams, the volatile manager of the Padres’ first World Series team. It was Billy Beane who hired him as an Oakland A’s scout, during the height of the franchise’s Moneyball operation.

Envisioning himself an NFL kicker, Johnson once telephoned the Chargers, whose practices in Escondido he also had attended as a boy.

“It has been an adventure,” said Johnson, 64.

Johnson, whose gratitude for baseball is tempered by his dismay over what the sport has become, recently revisited his athletic career in a question-and-answer session.

If you gave a scouting report on yourself as a ballplayer, what would it be?

“Short, compact swing. Sprays the ball around. Opposite field, mostly. occasional power Can play third, second, first. Very limited shortstop. Can catch in a pinch. I was the third catcher for several years. A ’45’ player.”

What does ’45’ denote on the scouting scale that spans 20 to 80?

“A good backup. A guy who can start for a while, but his best fit is to move around the field. Just short of being good enough to be a regular.”

The Braves were a pretty good team when you were with them. Any memories stand out?

“My first year we started the season 13-and-0. The funny part is I didn’t step on the field in any of those games. That’s my claim to fame.”

You had some success. Batted .267 in your career. Home runs off some good pitchers — John Franco, Tom Hume, Joaquin Andujar, Bob Knepper.

“If I could have stayed healthy, I could have done a lot more. I wasn’t blessed with strong bones. A lot of broken fingers. Tore the labrum in my left shoulder and let (that team’s) doctors butcher me.”

You were caught stealing, 11 of 15 tries. What grade would you give your footspeed?

“Deceptive (laughed). At 30.”

Do you remember your actions during the infamous brawl in Atlanta, between the Braves and Padres in August 1984?

“I walked around the outside of the scrum, trying not to get sucker-punched. I watched Kurt Bevacqua swing wildly and run, swing wildly and run, and run and swing wildly.”

Before finishing with the Padres as a player-coach in Brisbane, Australia, you played for the West Palm Beach Tropics in the Senior Professional Association. How’d that go?

“I had a blast. It was a lot of fun. We had a great team. We were like, 32-8. Lot of great guys. Rum Washington. Mickey Rivers. Jerry White. Toby Harrah. Al Hrabosky. Dave Kingman.”

And the manager?

Dick Williams. Great story there. We were in Florida. At the end of spring training, I was told I made the team. So, we played a game. And Dick Williams supposedly thought he gave me a bunt sign I didn’t get. So afterward, he was in my face in the dugout. I said: “I think you messed up the sign up, Dick.” And, I didn’t like that. I got a couple of players to back me up. Didn’t matter. The next day Dick said we’re making a change, and you’re not going to make the team.

“I went home to California. A week later they called and said we want you back. A week later I went back and hit .320.”

You have a pitching line, from a Pacific Coast League game. Twelve runs allowed, none earned, in two innings. What happened?

“All the runs came in one inning. We had no pitchers to use. I threw 80-something pitches. I couldn’t feel my arm. I gave up a triple to Barry Bonds. It wasn’t a heater, it was a freezer.”

After you were done playing, Padres executive Randy Smith hired you as an area scout in Georgia and the Carolinas. Then you began to scout professional players, working for the Padres, Rockies, A’s and Tigers. What was it like scouting in the Steroid Era?

“Very difficult. Put it that way.”

How am I?

“You’d see a kid in Double-A or even Triple-A that didn’t really stand out or wasn’t anything close to a prospect. Say he hits .230 to .240 with six, seven home runs. You figure, ‘This guy maxed out, he’s never done a whole lot.’ And, you write him off as a nonprospect. You end up seeing him a couple of years later in the big leagues, 30 pounds heavier and hitting the ball out of the park to all fields. It happened quite a bit. Or a guy’s fastball, all of a sudden, is jumping three, four, five mph. So, it was very difficult. It was almost like you want to find out who he was doing it and go after those guys.

How did your bosses account for the possibility that some of the players you were scouting were using steroids?

“Nothing was ever really mentioned. I was one of the first guys to say, ‘This guy’s doing it, that guy’s doing it.’ Everybody would always laugh at me and say: ‘You never lifted weights, blah, blah, blah.’ I said: ‘Yes, I did. And I know how hard it is to gain that kind of weight and keep it all year.’ Even (former Padres GM) Kevin Towers told me: ‘You know what, RJ? You were right all these years.’ I said: ‘Well, it’s not that tough to figure out when you were amongst them.’”

Can you provide an example?

“I played against a guy in Triple-A who, you could’ve played your outfielders on the cut of the grass. A few years later, he hit a bunch of home runs in Shea Stadium. It wasn’t that hard for me to figure it out.”

Do you think MLB is now a ‘clean’ sport?

“Do not. Not even close. (Laughed.)”

Now that you’re out of baseball, do you still watch the games?

“I keep an eye on what the Padres have done, and the teams that I scouted the last year. But, I have not missed it one bit. Except for the camaraderie of the scouts.”

Why not?

“What once was a great game, to see it turned into what it is — that’s been kind of hard to watch. It’s not as fun of a game to watch. Not as exciting. If you like the home runs, it’s great. It’s home runs, walks, strikeouts. It’s not my idea of ​​baseball. I’ve been saying the last 10 years, it’s more like a slow-pitch softball game.”

What changes would you like to see in baseball?

“Number one, deaden the ball. Two, move the fences back.”

(Johnson also took issue with the bats, which he said are much lighter yet also much harder than decades ago. He said a manufacturer’s rep told him that, to keep up with the competition, the bats are heat-compressed to make them harder. )

He added: “When guys are not even having to square a ball up and hitting home runs, to me, the game should never have been like that. Twenty-four percent is the average strikeout rate in the major leagues and 40 percent of the runs were scored via home runs last year. That’s not baseball. (Laughed). In my mind, that’s not baseball. I don’t know why that’s acceptable. … I don’t blame the players. They’re rewarded. The commissioner wants to speed up the game, but he wants more offense. So, figure that one out.”

The baseball life took you on quite a journey. You lived in eight states as a minor leaguer and scout. For the A’s you went to the Dominican Republic, China, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan. Randy Smith sent you to Australia. You lived in Hiroshima, riding a scooter to and from the ballpark and finding out the food was fabulous.

“I was blessed. I’m thankful. It was pretty much a fun life, a fun career. I had a heck of a career. I did a lot of different things. I owe my incredible journey (after playing) to Randy Smith. He hired and believed in me enough to let me tag along with him for 22 years of my career. I owe him everything.”

(Johnson said he is grateful to his wife, Heather, whom he married near the end of his playing career.)

Last question, why are you known as Rags?

“I ragged on myself. I got that nickname in Double-A, Savannah, after I got traded to the Braves (by the Mets, who took Johnson in the 11th round of the 1978 draft). I ragged (teased) guys about everything — but ragged about myself as well.”