Today it was announced that former Toronto Blue Jays manager Tim Johnson has signed on to manage the Algodoneros de San Luis of the Northern League of Mexico. The Algodoneros (Cottonmen) are based in San Luis Rio Colorado in the baseball hotbed province of Sonora, Mexico.
The Northern League of Mexico is, technically speaking, one level below the MiLB-affiliated Mexican League. While the Mexican League is rated as triple-A level baseball, the Northern League is considerably less than that. The Algodoneros are a farm club that develops prospects for two Mexican League teams: the Acereros de Monclova and Pericos de Puebla. Both teams are owned by the same corporate entity, the Baseball Grupo Industrial Monclova.
A native of North Dakota, Tim Johnson made his Major League debut as an infielder for the Milwaukee Brewers in 1973. His six-year Major League career ended with a 43-game stint with Toronto in 1979. The 67-year old Johnson last managed at the Major League level in 1998, when he guided the Toronto Blue Jays to a 88-74-1 record. At the conclusion of the season, Johnson was fired for pretending to be a veteran of the Vietnam War. This was a lie he had told his players as a member of the Boston Red Sox coaching staff in 1995:
Former Red Sox star Mike Greenwell remembers Johnson doing anything he could to pump up the players. He’d tell them that life was tough in the trenches and he ought to know, because he’d been to ‘Nam. It fired the players up. In the beginning, there were no specifics.
“I’ve heard the stories,” Greenwell says. “To me, he was telling me you can survive, you’ve got to be tougher. It’s so easy to go a little bit too far.”
When Johnson was hired by the Blue Jays in 1998, he kept up the Vietnam veteran ruse. In an attempt to motivate pitcher Pat Hentgen during a road trip to Boston, Johnson told a story about killing two children because they were in the line of fire. With pitching coach Mel Queen within earshot, Johnson drove home his point that there were harder things in life than pitching. Months later, his story would unravel. A confluence of events led to Johnson’s downfall:
There was already animosity in the clubhouse; Queen and Johnson had a very public feud. That was the scene as Johnson’s birthday approached.
Johnson’s wife bought him a Harley Davidson motorcycle. Roger Clemens, a good friend of Johnson’s and a former Blue Jays pitcher, wanted to get his buddy a meaningful present. Clemens’ brother was a Vietnam vet and owned a motorcycle helmet with the logo of his combat unit on it.
Clemens wanted to do the same for his friend.
So he started doing some checking. He didn’t have much luck. Then he called Johnson’s wife and asked her. According to friends in Clay Center, she told Clemens that Timmy didn’t go to Vietnam. It wasn’t intentional; she just didn’t know; the lie was that quiet in the Johnson home.
Enemies of Johnson found out, and the wheels came off.
“It was a thing to try to motivate,” he says, “and it didn’t work.”
Johnson denied it at first, finally coming clean and apologizing. But it wasn’t that easy. He hung on for the rest of the year, but friends of Johnson say the situation was handled poorly by the team. Johnson was finally fired two weeks into spring training in 1999.
“I resisted that because I was hopeful that people would give him a second chance, and he was remorseful,” then-GM Gord Ash says. “It didn’t seem like anybody wanted to give it to him. The players weren’t accepting. The media weren’t accepting. It wasn’t going to work.”
The Toronto Star’s Richard Grifin makes a compelling case for forgiveness in this article from 2007. Griffin references a book called Stolen Valor, which details a large social problem in which many soldiers lied about service in Vietnam. Tim Johnson’s case is far from unique. Humans are complex creatures; only Johnson can know for sure why he lied about his tour in Vietnam, though guilt likely played a leading role.
“I got to Milwaukee at the end of spring training (in ’73),” Johnson recalled of his rookie ML season with the Brewers. “I had the phone number of one of my guys. I called and a woman answered. When I asked for him there was a long pause and she said, `Is this a joke? He died in Vietnam.'”
In this context, where exactly in the big picture of sporting scandals should Johnson’s Vietnam lie rank, remembering that he used the stories mostly in ill-advisedly trying to motivate players and not as a part of day-to-day existence?
Personally, I doubt that Tim Johnson will ever manage a Major League-affiliated ball club ever again. Managers and coaches at baseball’s highest level need to have the trust of their players in order to have an effective working relationship. As Friedrich Nietzsche once said, “I’m not upset that you lied to me, I’m upset that from now on I can’t believe you.” But in Mexico, focused on player development, Johnson is equipped with all the tools to succeed. The Spanish-speaking Johnson already has prior experience managing in Mexico; following his dismissal from the Blue Jays, Johnson managed the storied Mexico City Red Devils team (Mexico’s version of the New York Yankees) in the triple-A Mexican League. In addition, he’s managed four different teams in the Mexican Pacific League, an off-season winter league situated on Mexico’s west coast. He last managed in Mexico in 2005 as a member of the Mexicali Aguilas. Among Mexican baseball fans, he’s beloved.
Johnson’s role will be to develop San Luis’s players into Mexican League players, and eventually Major League players. The Algodoneros of San Luis Rio Colorado are looking to improve on 2016’s second-place finish. Under the tutelage of Tim Johnson, I hope that they do.
Credit to El Sol de Puebla for breaking the story.
Featured image photo credit: Tony Ranze/Getty Images