The original face of the Portland Sea Dogs is returning to Hadlock Field.
Charles Johnson won the 1994 Eastern League home run title for the inaugural Sea Dogs and went on to a 12-year career in the major leagues. Now a retired 41-year-old father of two living in his native Florida, Johnson is among a group of former Sea Dogs gathering Thursday to celebrate the 20th season of the Double-A franchise.
“I really enjoyed it,” Johnson said of his season in Portland, which resulted in 28 homers, an EL All-Star game appearance and a four-game call-up to the Florida Marlins in May to replace a suspended Benito Santiago at catcher. “The people (in Portland) were very nice to all the players there. They were really warm and receptive. Even on days you were thinking nobody would come out to the ballpark, they would come out to watch minor league baseball.”
The Sea Dogs filled a void in Portland, where professional baseball had been absent since the 1949 Portland Pilots. Fans flocked to Hadlock Field, which led the league in attendance even with a team that finished 60-81.
The Sea Dogs were part of the Florida organization for nine years before switching to their current partners in Boston. The expansion Marlins made Johnson their first draft pick in 1992, out of the University of Miami.
His manager in 1993 (Class A Kane County, Ill.) and 1994 was Carlos Tosca, who spent three years as the Portland manager and is currently bench coach in Atlanta for his Sea Dogs successor, Fredi Gonzalez.
Johnson bumped into Tosca many times during their major league careers, which for Johnson included stints with the Dodgers, Orioles, White Sox and Rockies, in addition to two terms with the Marlins before Tampa Bay released him in June 2005.
“I still felt like I could play,” he said of finding himself out of work at age 33. “But at the time I couldn’t find a job. I had an offer to play in the minors but I didn’t want to go that route. I just decided I would wait it out until the following spring, but no one else picked me up.”
Johnson and his wife, Rhonda, (they were married after his season in Portland), have two sons. Brandon is a 14-year-old high school freshman who plays football and basketball. Twelve-year-old Beaux plays football and baseball, usually third base or left field but in this, his last year of Little League, he took up catching.
Charles Johnson won four Gold Gloves at catcher in his first four seasons in the majors, including an errorless 1997 season culminating in a World Series championship. Older fans in Portland may remember not just his powerful arm but his intelligence in shutting down an opposing running game.
On a double-steal attempt with runners on first and second, Johnson always made the longer throw to second to nab the trailing runner.
“Even though that guy on first gets the steal sign, he doesn’t know if the guy on second received the sign,” Johnson said with a knowing laugh.
“He’s still going to wait and see and be a step late all the time. That’s the guy you can get easily.”
Johnson still keeps in touch with a few of his old Sea Dogs teammates, including former roommate Vic Darensbourg and Eddie Christian. His parents still live up the coast in Fort Pierce, Fla. Rhonda operates a boutique in Plantation called Paper Niche that specializes in scrapbooking, invitations and gifts.
Last fall Johnson returned to the university to complete the education he interrupted 20 years earlier, although he switched his major from business to liberal arts. He currently takes two classes, one on the American presidency and the other on sustainable living, and figures he will complete the requirements for his degree next spring.
His sons “think it’s pretty funny that I’m at the table doing homework with them,” he said.
They even give him help on occasion, such as when he has to put together a project involving a computer-based slide show.
“Kids these days, they learn to do a PowerPoint presentation in the third grade,” he said.
Johnson and current Marlins manager Mike Redmond, who followed him as a Sea Dogs catcher, played unsuccessful phone tag before Redmond got too busy with spring training, but a future visit is likely. The dismantled Marlins — Johnson was shipped to Los Angeles in the first of what has turned out to be several Florida fire sales — lost 11 of their first 14 games under Redmond.
“It’s still early,” Johnson said. “I think he’s going to be OK. Mike’s always been a great leader, a guy who really understands the game. I’m pretty sure he’ll find his way.”
Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or at: