Reed Johnson is the Cubs’ feel-good outfielder
By GORDON WITTENMYER firstname.lastname@example.org February 25, 2011 11:08PM
Reed Johnson became a fan favorite for his diving catches and a clubhouse favorite during his stay with the Cubs from 2008 to ’09. | Tom Cruze-Sun-Times
Updated: May 28, 2011 4:51AM
Cubs center fielder Marlon Byrd was talking one day early in camp about the team’s improved outlook and some of the key players added when he mentioned the guy sitting across from him in the clubhouse.
‘‘And when Reed Johnson makes the team . . . ,’’ Byrd said, then repeated, raising his voice to be heard by anyone in the room, ‘‘ When Reed Johnson makes this team . . .’’
He didn’t have to finish the sentence. That’s on Johnson.
But the point was made about what teammates think of the often-diving, often-crashing — and too-often aching — clubhouse favorite and his return as a non-roster player after a season with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
‘‘He’s prominent in this mix,’’ manager Mike Quade said of Johnson’s place in a backup-outfield battle that also includes co-favorite Fernando Perez, who was acquired from the Tampa Bay Rays in the Matt Garza deal.
‘‘First and foremost, I know what he can do on the field,’’ said Quade, who was the outfield coach when Johnson gained local folk-hero status with plays such as the bill-busting dive across the warning track for a catch in Washington in his first month with the Cubs in 2008.
‘‘And I also know what he can bring in there with his familiarity and the fact that he played here, in this division, in this ballpark, in this city. There’s a lot of real good stuff that comes with Reed. That’s why he’s here.’’
If the Cubs have made a point the last couple of years to bring in guys with good-chemistry reputations — a philosophy that continued this winter with Kerry Wood, Augie Ojeda, Carlos Pena and others — Johnson was the poster boy for the trend.
Or the T-shirt boy, as the case might be — as in the ‘‘With Reed We Will Succeed’’ shirt a fan sent to the clubhouse and former Cub Ted Lilly famously wore into a postgame media session near the end of the 2009 season.
‘‘It means a lot,’’ Johnson said of the way teammates talk about him. ‘‘I knew I wasn’t going to be a guy who put up Hall of Fame numbers, but I want to be recognized when I leave this game as somebody who played the game the right way and was a good teammate.’’
Even Milton Bradley credited Johnson with ‘‘kind of putting a foot in my ass’’ during a tough stretch in 2009, praising Johnson for his leadership and clubhouse chemistry.
But for all the feel-good parts of this story, the renewed relationship is only going to last beyond the spring if Johnson can stay healthy and keep that balky back from taking him out of a competition that starts with the Cactus League opener Sunday.
The last time Johnson had 500 at-bats, he hit .319 with 12 home runs and an .869 OPS. That was five years and another league ago.
And even when he hit .302 in that first season with the Cubs in 2008, he spent time on the disabled list. He was there twice more in ’09 and for three weeks last year with the Dodgers. Now he’s 34.
‘‘That’s really the goal for me now,’’ said Johnson, who added he’s 100 percent healthy.
For a career .281 hitter who’s back with a team that saw him at his best when healthy, that might be the bottom-line factor when decisions are made.
‘‘My numbers are what they are career-wise, nine years of being pretty consistent,’’ said Johnson, who has no qualms or fears about his non-roster status and the job battle he faces. ‘‘I’ve been on a one-year deal all nine years of my career, so I know what it’s about to come in and have to win a job.’’
This time he knows what to expect, back in a familiar place, around people he knows and trusts.
‘‘That’s a big thing. You’re coming back to an organization that’s honest with you and knows what you’re about,’’ he said. ‘‘They know how I play the game. The trainers know my history. The manager knows me real well being the outfield guy here for two years when I was here. All of that factors into me coming here. It seemed like a good fit.’’