BALTIMORE – The door cracked open. The Janitor started his walk. Slow steps at first, then a little faster, into a jog and finally a run. He pumped his legs 88 times until he reached the mound. With each stride the cheers grew. This was a Baltimore sort of night, cool enough to keep a Natty Boh fresh, and they wanted to remind him that he was a Baltimore sort of guy. Here, they don't give up on their own, not these Orioles at least.
Jim Johnson's teammates started calling him The Janitor recently because, explained reliever Tommy Hunter, "They're never very happy, and they always clean up everybody else's [expletive]." And as far as messes go, this one, in deed and context, was among his toughest.
Derek Jeter, Ichiro Suzuki, Alex Rodriguez. Three Hall of Famers, three outs. With a one-run lead. And Robinson Cano due up fourth in the inning. Plus the shadow of the previous night, less than 24 hours earlier, when Johnson blew the first game of the AL Division Series against the Yankees by imploding for five runs. Don't forget the specter of Baltimore's incredible 75-0 record when leading after seven innings.
All of these things, and the fact that Baltimore hadn't seen its baseball team win a playoff game in 15 years, coalesced into an inning of hysteria – of weak groundouts by Jeter and Ichiro, of a 96-mph fastball that kamikazed away from Alex Rodriguez's feeble two-strike swing and ultimately of a 3-2 victory in Game 2 that knotted the series and sent it back to New York with a much different vibe than after the malaise of the opening game.
"To come back from a bad outing, you usually want the ball right away," Johnson said. "You don't want to sit on it for a day and then have an off-day. … You've got to embrace it. If you're tentative, if you're scared, it's not going to reflect well."
The most highly paid custodial worker in America does not scare easy. To return right after that loss, stare down the names he did, fire 96-mph sinkers with a foot of movement and let the Yankees twist themselves into pretzels epitomized what he has done this season. Johnson saved 51 games and anchored an Orioles bullpen that helped post the greatest winning percentage of all time in one-run games. The ends of games became something of a sure thing, and there was no way two nights in a row the bullies from New York were going to come to this city, this ballpark, this celebration and ruin it.
Little did they realize Johnson had done everything to exorcise the previous night from his mind. He walked into the clubhouse Monday afternoon with a cartoon-sized check made out to BARCS, a Baltimore-area animal shelter, for $200. Every day before batting practice, he and reliever Darren O'Day played a game of H-O-R-S-E on a hoop near the ground's crew area. Winner got $20. At the end of the season, O'Day was ahead 10, and so Johnson decided to make a presentation out of it.
"I'm a man of my word," he said, handing the check to O'Day. "Here you go."
It was like Game 1's meltdown, which was all anybody in Baltimore could talk about Monday, hadn't happened.
"An hour after the game, he already moved on," O'Day said. "We were joking around about fantasy football, and he laughed at my stupid jokes. If somebody is laughing at my jokes, he's probably not in that bad of a mood."
The aphorism about closers' forgetfulness really is true. Johnson didn't exactly have amnesia – "It's going to bug you," he said, "because you care" – but he knows how this job works. Closers blow leads. The bad ones keep doing so and lose their jobs. The good ones come back the next day with Jeter, Ichiro and A-Rod awaiting and make them look like three guys in their late 30s.
No matter how diminished their skills, the names still matter to players, who shook their heads at how silly Johnson made them look. The crowd knew, too, because in the time since the Orioles last made the playoffs, the Yankees had won four championships, spent billions of dollars in payroll and left in the dust the last franchise to outspend them.
It's true. In 1998, the Orioles spent a major league high $70.4 million, $7.3 million more than the second-place Yankees, who have led the major leagues in payroll the 13 years since. Baltimore, meanwhile, devolved into a small-market team with an owner in Peter Angelos who ran the club like he didn't know what he was doing, pretty much because he didn't. Then he hired Buck Showalter and Dan Duquette and let them complement a strong young core with a group of misfits that constitutes a team one-third of the way to the ALCS.
Now, finally, the cheers returned, Camden Yards overflowed and The Janitor felt as good as the real kind when he adds another key to the chain dangling with 50.
"It was cool to hear the roar of the crowd," Hunter said. "I got goosebumps."
Johnson stood on the mound, 6-foot-6 and 240 pounds, lighting up the radar gun, first at 93, then 94, followed by 95 and finally 96, heat-seekers that center fielder Adam Jones said "he threw with conviction. He wanted the save. He wanted this game. We needed this game."
Without it, the Orioles stared at a 2-0 deficit and another playoff washout. Instead, Johnson got to talk about his redemption and feel the warm embrace of teammates' love rather than their sympathy and even chat with Angelos, who is so familiar with his ballclub Johnson needed an introduction.
He has been with the Orioles since 2001, when they drafted him and tried to make him a starting pitcher. That failed, and since his debut in 2006 he has ascended the bullpen hierarchy, from mop-up guy to middle reliever to setup man to closer. His 43rd save clinched a winning season for the Orioles, and Monday night he presented the final ball from that outing to Angelos, a memento the owner held in his hands and refused to let go.
Nobody wanted to let go of this night. For 13 years, the Orioles were Baltimore's only professional sport. People here want to adore them. Their descent into mediocrity, then abject awfulness, chewed at the soul of a sports town that loves to wear Orioles orange as much as it does Ravens purple, that craves the post-game beer at Pickles Pub and that can't help but embrace a guy whose job it is to clean up the messes of others.
This was a lot of people's night, from Wei-Yin Chen and his brilliant start to Brian Matusz and his dominant relief to Chris Davis and his go-ahead hit. Above all, however, it was Jim Johnson's – for revenge and posterity, for himself and his teammates and for this city that loves its Janitor win or lose.
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