News of Ron Johnson’s death because of COVID-19 last week devastated the baseball community, which mourned the loss of a lifer who spent his decades in the game helping those around him not only get better at their jobs but also make that pursuit more joyful. The 64-year-old was remembered as a beloved teacher with an infectious passion for baseball and life.
“What a punch in the stomach,” said Cleveland manager Terry Francona, who became close with Johnson during his years as a Red Sox minor league manager and member of his big league coaching staff. “He was just a big, lovable teddy bear.”
Though Johnson — known as “R.J.” — spent time in the big leagues as a player (Royals and Expos from 1982-84) and as Francona’s first base coach with the Red Sox (2010-11), most of his career took place in the minor league shadows. He spent 25 years managing in the Royals, Red Sox, and Orioles farm systems between 1992-2018 — including 10 seasons with the Sox in High A Sarasota (2000-01), Double A Trenton (2002) and Portland (2003-04), and Triple A Pawtucket (2005-09).
He managed a number of stars on the ascent — including Johnny Damon, Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia, Jon Lester, Jacoby Ellsbury, Zack Britton, and many others. To those who encountered him in the minors, Johnson’s influence was more outsized than his hulking 6-foot-3-inch frame.
“He was just larger than life,” said Red Sox assistant general manager Raquel Ferreira. “Just hearing his voice in spring training, booming through, coming in with his cowboy boots, his hat, dip dripping down his face . . . it brings smiles to your face but it also brings tears to your eyes.”
Invariably, amidst the heartbreak over Johnson’s death, those who knew him couldn’t help but laugh at an array of stories about him. As the former Red Sox director of player development, Pirates GM Ben Cherington spent years working closely with Johnson and remembers him “being one of the people I most enjoyed being around in baseball, really, from every job. He was just a delight on so many levels, always optimistic and always problem-solving.
“Just great memories of being in his office after games, talking baseball and laughing. Usually there’d be coffee and some tobacco product raining down on me somehow.”
Cherington recalled that he was not the only one who was ill-served by the absence of a poncho around Johnson. Former Portland Sea Dogs owner Dan Burke hosted an annual lobster bake at his house in Kennebunkport, Maine, for members of the Sea Dogs organization. Cherington joined one year when former president George H.W. Bush and first lady Barbara Bush — flanked by Secret Service — were also in attendance.
“Somehow R.J. got seated next to Barbara at the lobster bake,” said Cherington. “Imagine R.J. any way — then imagine him eating a lobster. There’s shells, melted butter, and he’s doing it right next to the first lady. She was just getting showered — lobster shells, butter, sea water. And she was laughing it up. Only R.J. could pull that off. It was like they were old friends by the end of the night.”
“You wish that back then you had an iPhone to take pictures and videos of it,” said Sea Dogs president Geoff Iacuessa. “That was the thing — he was the life of the party without being obnoxious. Anybody who was around — front office, fans, players, anybody — he had the ability to make you feel important around him.”
Johnson radiated an interest in the lives of those around him and his desire to do what was best for them. His willingness to poke fun at himself allowed him to connect easily with others and ultimately, to communicate hard truths in a way that players could hear rather than resent.
“Part of his genius is he was willing to almost mock himself in the pursuit of what he was trying to get to his team, the trust he was trying to build, the transparency,” said Cherington.
That ability made Johnson, in the eyes of both Francona and Buck Showalter (who as Orioles manager worked closely with Johnson from 2012-18, when he managed Baltimore’s Triple A affiliate in Norfolk, Va.), an extraordinary Triple A manager.
Triple A is typically considered the most difficult level to manage — an in-between world that features players who are dismayed by their demotion or convinced their promotion is overdue. The frustration of the station can create roadblocks to improvement.
But Johnson’s ability to win the trust of his players allowed him to have direct conversations about the strengths that could get them to the big leagues and the shortcomings that might prevent them from doing so. For that reason, former players — among them Kevin Youkilis from his time with the Red Sox, Britton from his Orioles tenure, and Brian McRae from his time with the Royals, among many others — recalled Johnson on social media as one of their favorite managers.
“I think that’s the toughest place to manage or maybe coach. It takes a special guy to do that job . . . He was the perfect Triple A manager,” said Showalter. “He would give the guys space when they got sent down and were upset, but at some point, Ron would have that tough conversation.”
Johnson helped achieve that atmosphere through daily “circle of trust” meetings, when he’d assemble the team on the field before batting practice to shoot the breeze for a few minutes. There were insights about baseball — perhaps singling out a player who advanced a runner on a 1-2 count or someone who missed a sign — but also opportunities for players to talk about personal lives, to laugh at themselves and each other, and to remember that they were pursuing a passion.
“His impact on my career, from a cup of coffee into a bona fide Major Leaguer was profound,” Cubs assistant GM Craig Breslow, who played for Johnson in Pawtucket in 2006 and 2007, wrote in an email. “He cared so deeply about the game. He demanded that we respect each other, and he also demanded that we enjoyed our experiences.”
“He was a manager,” added Red Sox third base coach Carlos Febles, who played under Johnson in the Royals system, “that all players wanted to play for, [a] great teacher.”
Johnson also proved the life of meetings with coaches, particularly in morning meetings in spring training.
“Every morning, you’d walk in and it wasn’t a hello. It was a bear hug,” said Francona, who’d known Johnson since the two played against each other in the minors in the early 1980s. “He’d spill something on you — spill a coffee on you. He always had a big mug of coffee. He was always walking around, not looking where he was going, and half the time he’d knock you over. But there was always a laugh that followed it.”
“He was kind of that David Ortiz kind of guy in the coaches’ room,” recalled former Red Sox minor league manager and big league first base coach Arnie Beyeler, now in the Tigers system. “He would always come into the meetings with a smile on his face about 30 seconds before it started, a computer under one arm with two or three keys missing, a Big Gulp cup full off coffee, some dip running down his lip, stuffed to one side with a big fatty in. He’d just walk in and go, ‘OK boys, let’s go. Time to go now, R.J.’s here.’”
Johnson, said Ferreira, created a family atmosphere in his baseball life in part because he spent so much time gushing about his wife, Daphne, and their five children. In 2017, he had an opportunity to manage his son, Chris, with the Orioles’ Triple A affiliate, resulting in a rare opportunity for Johnson to spend months with both his son and his grandson, Greyson. Norfolk Tides director of communications Ian Locke chuckled that Ron and Chris Johnson may have become the first father-son combination to get ejected from the same game during that season.
Behind the adulation for Johnson from across the industry, however, came a sense of melancholy about the final years of his life. As much as he relished his chance to live in Tennessee with his family, he wanted to keep working in baseball after the Orioles let him go following the 2018 season.
But there wasn’t a job for a man who’d spent 40 years in professional baseball as a player, coach, and manager. That fact reflects upon an industry shifting to new models and expectations of player development, and that saw less use for Johnson’s approach to teaching and development.
“There’s something to be said about the [state of the] game when there’s not a chair for Ron Johnson,” said Showalter.
Cherington acknowledged that he’s spent recent days reflecting on the fact that Johnson couldn’t find another job — that in the increasingly technical and scientific world of player development, Johnson’s ability to connect with players on a personal level hadn’t been enough to keep him in the game.
“Candidly, I think he’d say it himself, he was not going to put together a Rapsodo session in the cage. That’s just not what he was going to do,” said Cherington. “But he had a unique way of connecting with people, connecting with players, helping players feel good about themselves, maintaining a sense of humor through difficult times. There’s something really valuable in that, too.
“If you have a knack for creating that environment and keeping people engaged for five months, it’s a real skill. He was great at it. A lot of it was that desire to take the work seriously and do it well, but not take himself too seriously — to be willing to laugh and be part of that minor league architecture. There’s got to be a way to appreciate and include people who bring what R.J. brought and still get better at practice, be more efficient in how we help the players get better. There’s got to be a way to do both.”
Perhaps the starting point is simply to appreciate the uniqueness of someone like Johnson — a person who dedicated himself to the game and its players, and who both took and spread joy in doing so.