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Long version of Johnson's longball

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Before I tell you why Dan Johnson of the Tampa Bay Rays hit my favorite home run of the 2008 season, a few words about the longball.

There were 4,878 regular-season home runs hit in major league baseball last season, from Mark Ellis of Oakland taking Daisuke Matsuzaka of Boston deep in the first inning of the March 25 season opener in the Tokyo Dome, to Jim Thome of the White Sox homering off Minnesota's Nick Blackburn for the only run of the teams' one-game playoff for the American League Central title Sept. 30 in Chicago's U.S. Cellular Field.

That's an average of 2.01 home runs per game, a decrease of 9.4 percent from 2006. Home runs were slightly down in the NL from 2007 (2,608 from 2,705) and slightly up in the AL (2,270 from 2,252), so perhaps power numbers are reaching equilibrium now that players have been tested for performance-enhancing drugs for five years. Certainly, both leagues are well off record numbers (3,005 in the NL in 2000, 2,742 in the AL in 1996).

Ryan Howard of the Phillies, with 48, and Adam Dunn of the Diamondbacks, with 40, were the only players to hit 40 or more home runs last season. That's the fewest players to reach the mark since 1992, when Oakland's Mark McGwire and Texas' Juan Gonzalez were the only players to hit 40. As recently as 2006, 11 players hit 40 or more, one of eight times since 1996 that a double-digit number of players hit at least 40. Last season, Miguel Cabrera of the Tigers led the AL with 37.

The average distance of home runs in 2008 was 396.6 feet, as calculated by Greg Rybarczyk, a former Navy nuclear engineer and baseball fan who has created one of the most entertaining baseball sites at www.hittrackeronline.com.

Rybarczyk's formulas show that Dunn hit the longest home run of the year, 497 feet, on Sept. 27. It struck the scoreboard at Arizona's Chase Field about 67 feet above field level. Dunn also averaged the longest distance per home run (412.7 feet) measured by standard distance, which is how far the ball would have travelled if hit on a 70-degree day with calm winds. Alex Rodriguez of the Yankees led the AL with an average of 411.1 feet. (Incidentally, Josh Hamilton hit three balls in the All-Star Home Run Derby that carried at least an estimated 500 feet, the longest measured at 518 in Yankee Stadium).

Dunn, who hit six home runs 450 feet or more, led baseball in what Rybarczyk calls "no doubt" home runs – balls that cleared the fence vertically by at least 20 feet and landed at least 50 feet beyond – with 17. Luke Scott of the Orioles was the surprise AL leader in no-doubters with 11.

Jack Cust of Oakland led in the "just enough" category – balls that cleared the fence by less than 10 feet vertically and landed less than one fence height past the fence – with 16. Ryan Braun of the Brewers and Mark Reynolds of the Diamondbacks had 14 "just enough" homers to pace the NL.

"Lucky" home runs are defined by Rybarczyk as those that would not have cleared the fence on a 70-degree day with calm winds. Mark DeRosa of the Cubs hit nine home runs that were "lucky." Mark Teahen of the Royals hit six.

Finally, there was one home run hit in a pennant race by a guy called up from the minors the same day, who was scratched from the starting lineup because his cab was stuck in traffic headed to Boston's Fenway Park, was summoned to pinch hit in the ninth inning with his team down by a run, and hit a game-tying home run.

Dan Johnson's blast might have saved the season for the Rays. They had lost four straight games, had been shut out twice in a row, and their lead over the Boston Red Sox was down to a half-game. When Jason Bay hit a two-run home run in the eighth to give the Red Sox a 4-3 lead, the Red Sox were three outs away from taking over first place in the AL East.

Boston's closer, Jonathan Papelbon, had not given up a home run in nearly three months. The Rays had not beaten the Red Sox at Fenway Park in seven previous tries. And here was Johnson, who had begun the day in Scranton-Wilkes Barre, Pa., thinking he'd be playing for Triple-A Durham in the playoffs.

Johnson, whose call-up was so unexpected he had to buy dress shoes at the airport in Philadelphia before changing planes, of course had missed batting practice.

"I'm telling you,'' he said in a recent phone conversation, "before that day I think I'd struck out four times in my last six at-bats. I had no clue what I was doing.

"It was getting to the end of the year, where you're just trying to get it over with. All of a sudden, boom, you're told you're going up.''

Papelbon fell behind Johnson, 3-0, then threw a fastball for a strike. Johnson fouled back the next pitch, a 97 mile-an-hour fastball. "I had a lot of nerves built up,'' Johnson said.

With the count full, Papelbon threw another fastball. Johnson hit it over the Boston bullpen. Fernando Perez and Dioner Navarro followed with doubles, and the Rays held on to win.

The home run came on Johnson's first at-bat for the Rays, who had claimed him on waivers from Oakland in April, then traded for another left-handed hitting outfielder, Gabe Gross, on the same day and sent Johnson to the minors.

Johnson became the first player in 50 years to hit a ninth-inning home run in his first at-bat for a first-place team in a September game, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

It also was his first pinch hit – ever. Johnson was 0-for-15 previously, a fact that Tampa Bay's stats-conscious manager, Joe Maddon, afterward admitted he didn't know.

"That night is a blur,'' Johnson said. "The phone never stopped ringing. I think I got 36 text messages, missed calls, all kinds of good stuff.''

The Rays won the next night in extra innings, and beat the Red Sox two out of three the following week in Tropicana Field, assuring their place in October to continue their improbable worst-to-first quest.

The Rays return this season as AL defending champions, but Johnson won't be with them. The Rays sold him to Japan's Yokohama Bay Stars, who signed him to a one-year, $1.2 million contract.

Johnson said he agreed to the deal because he wanted the chance to play every day and prove himself worthy of a regular job in the big leagues.

"It came down to trying to take care of my family,'' said Johnson, who is married with two young sons. "I played in Japan with Oakland last March, and it was awesome. Everything we hear, it'll be a neat experience.''

And he'll always have one of the sweetest pieces of Rays history.

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