Next Stop Japan: The Journey Continues for Right-Hander DJ Johnson

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Signed as an undrafted free agent out of Western Oregon University by Tampa Bay back in the spring of 2010, DJ Johnson has had a travel log career in professional baseball spending time with 11 different teams, including a stint each of the last two years with the Rockies for his long big-league appearances.

Now, he's looking for a 12th team. After being removed from the Rockies big league roster as part of the off-season player shuffle this week, Johnson's focus is reportedly turning to Japan, where at the age of 30 he will look to get a couple more years out of what has been a Rand McNally type career.

"Thank you to the Colorado Rockies for giving me an opportunity realize my dream," Johnson posted on twitter Thursday. "What a journey! It has been an honor the past three seasons to wear a Rockies uniform and be part of this incredible organization.

"My teammates, coaches, the entire staff and of course the FANS are the BEST in the business! The Rockies will always have a place in my heart. I wish them nothing but the best in 2020, and years to come. God bless!''

After pitching for the Rockies Double-A Hartford affiliate in 2017, where he had a 2.80 ERA in 43 relief appearances, Johnson spent the 2018 at Triple A Albuquerque, and made his big-league debut when he was a September callup. He split time between the Rockies and Albuquerque in 2019, making the Opening Day roster with Colorado.

“It has been a long and winding road to get here,” Johnson said last spring when he was informed he'd be in the big leagues to open the season. “There have been a lot of ups and downs.”

It all started with the Tampa Bay Rays organization back in 2010 when he worked out of the bullpen for the rookie-level Gulf Coast League Rays. The list of teams ranges from two stints with the independent league team in Traverse City to that big-league exposure iwth the Rockies.

He shakes his head when he thinks about that journey that has taken him from the Gulf Coast League to Traverse City, Missoula, South Bend, Visalia, back to Traverse City, Fort Myers, Chattanooga, Little Rock, Hartford, Albuquerque and then last September Denver.

Former Albuquerque manager Glenallen Hill obviously appreciated the experience that awaited Johnson, and when the Isotopes season ended in September of 2018, Hill added a flair of dramatics to the moment.

“After our last game, Glennallen gave his end of the year speech,” Johnson said. “At the start of it, he announced three other players who were called up, and then at the end he said, `By the way, we have one more guy going up. He’s in the back of the room, and everyone looked at me. It was special.”

How big a deal was it?

“It meant I could go home and be with my family in the winter,” said Johnson. “It was special.”

It certainly has been a Fairy Tale story.

“I fell in love with the game when I was nine years old,” he said. “I knew I wanted to be a baseball player. I have been blessed enough to keep getting opportunities.

“Early in my career I took things for granted. It got to the point where I had to take things more serious but still have fun playing the game. I look at it as a job, but a job I enjoy. You have to keep that bit of kid in you.”

The round-around-road included attending Mount Hood Community College in Gresham, Ore., and Western Oregon University. A pitcher in his youth, he found himself playing first base at Western Oregon. When he finished school, his future was in limbo.

And then a door opened.

“The pitching coach at Western Oregon coached a high school all-star team that every year played the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes, a short-season team for the Giants,” Johnson said. “He asked me to pitch a couple innings, just so it would be a complete slaughter, and there happened to be a scout for Tampa Bay in the stands. He called my head coach at Western Oregon, and three days later called me asking if I wanted a job.”

It didn’t take long for Johnson to say yes, and find himself on a plane to Tampa, Fla., and a spot on the Ray’s Gulf Coast League affiliate – as a pitcher.

“I always thought I’d be a hitter, but I wouldn’t have it any other way right now,” said Johnson. “It’s been a long, crazy journey, and everything I’ve done up until this point seemed like it was pointing. But now? It has been worth it.”

And for that, give credit to his wife, Mel.

“My wife actually brought me to God,” he said. “We started praying a lot. She was the friend who talked me into keep playing in 2015. She knew what I wanted to do. She has been so supportive, I pushed myself even more to keep pursuing the dream.”

And finally, the dream became reality.

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