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Quality Time With Mr. Johnson
For a 40-year-old man, hearing your first name being “sung” like that just does something to you. Very few people get away with calling me by my first name. My own mother rarely calls me by that formal name and only my girlfriend is really allowed to even say it because that’s her term of endearment.
But when Cliff Johnson says it, it’s just as good because that’s coming from a really close friend now but more importantly, it’s coming from someone who has actually taught me to appreciate not just the game of baseball but also the history of the error in which he played in.
Unless you are just a baseball purist, or a diehard N.Y. Yankee fan, very few people know whom Cliff is or that he played in the big leagues. 15 years in the big show is an accomplishment no matter what the era is.
But Johnson is more than just another former athlete that I have become friends with; he has been a historian of sorts on the Yankees during their heyday, the 1977-78 teams that won it all. He is also now a celebrity of sorts thanks to ESPN’s “The Bronx is Burning” mini-series.
With Johnson in my ear, he has told me more stories than I can count about his experiences as a Yankee during that time. I heard from him about the infamous fight between him and Goose Gossage that landed Goose on the disabled list for two months.
Johnson would later go on to tell me that they have since gotten over that scuffle and that those are things of the past. I have heard stories about Mr. October, Reggie Jackson. I have heard stories about how Martin was beyond cult status and wasn’t just a terror, but almost enjoyed pissing George Steinbrenner off.
“One of these days, Gregory, you and I have to sit down and start writing a book about my days as a Yankee,” Johnson keeps reminding me. I’m all for it. Talk about a book that probably would be a best seller on the New York Times book list.
Imagine what kind of great stories could be told from the designated hitter of two World Series championships? The only thing that could top it would be a book from Mr. October or one of the other primary players on the team.
Over the years I have grown to not only get to know Cliff on a personal level, but to actually have him say that he considers me a friend of his.
Like I said, I’m 40 and although I may not be the greatest baseball fan Johnson has come across, I am a lover of the history of the game; particularly when it comes to hearing what the inner workings of the dugout was from someone of his stature in the history of the sport itself.
The stories that Johnson has told me and the people involved are the stuff that folklore is truly made of.
“Gregory, you would appreciate hearing these same stories from some of the greatest players I ever played with,” Johnson told me just a few days ago.
“Thurman Munson taught me to how be a winner on a team like what we played on. Joking around with guys like Graig Nettles, Munson, Lou (Piniella) and Jackson are some of the best times of life. And listening to Yogi be Yogi is something you just can’t ever forget.”
All of this was just conversations Johnson and I would have until that series came to light. As I look back on them, I can fully comprehend what he was telling me months and months ago as well as even on the current episodes of life today.
“Young athletes just don’t get it today, Gregory”, Johnson said just last weekend. “They just don’t get it.”
He was referring of course to the Michael Vick situation and I could see a bit of the hurt that he had in his eyes. Ironically I’ve seen that look before. It’s the same look I have seen in other former pro athletes’ eyes when one of their own has a serious brush with the law.
On more than one occasion Johnson has told me how he and his teammates have had wild times over their careers but nothing had ever come forth like what we read today on a daily basis.
Whenever we talk about such issues, especially when it comes to young athletes, Johnson sounds like one who could be on the speaking circuit at some symposium or lecture.
“These guys don’t realize how special their time is right now,” Johnson said. “When I broke into the big leagues, I cherished each and every day like it was my last because one day it became my last.”
That’s profound wisdom from someone who was drafted out of Wheatley High School in 1966.
Like so many athletes of his era, Johnson relishes his playing days and he’s always eager to share those moments with someone who would eagerly listen.
And that is probably why I said in my title what I professed: sometimes it’s good to hang with an old-timer. It’s good for a young sportswriter like myself because you learn so much to share.
What’s probably more profound now is that I have started to ask more questions since this series has begun than ever before and for Johnson, that seems to be just fine with him.
He doesn’t mind sharing the “true” stories that were the plot back in that time when the Yankees basically held a city together during some tumultuous times.
Over the years I have been fortunate to become friends with some of the sports’ greatest players and/or every day warriors.
From my numerous phone conversations I’ve had with Joe DeLamielleure when he was telling me what the Hall of Fame members were going to do about the pension plan that affects many former NFL greats, to just hearing guys like a Jean Fugett, Smokey Stover, Herb Adderley, Mercury Morris and others talk about the great teams the played on to listening to Nevil Shed give me the real “skinny” about the players he played with when Texas Western defeated Kentucky in the NCAA championship game to even hearing former NBA players Mike Mitchell and George Gervin sing about how good they were as just a “family” on the Spurs, it has been something that I just cherish with each and every one of those guys.
But if I had to say which is one of my more cherished moments, it has to be talking with Johnson about his days as a Yankee. It’s just a sportswriter’s dream come true.
One of these days Cliff and I are going to have to sit down and start writing that book he wants to write. But for right now I think he and I are just enjoying a friendship between two different generations.
A former player who loves telling his old “war” stories and an eager scribe who loves hearing them no matter how many times they are repeated.
Like I said earlier, sometimes it’s just good to be hangin’ out with an oldtimer. You just learn and absorb so much that you want to share it with others.