Even if apart, Johnson and father bond over baseball
Veteran infielder now better understands hectic lifestyle of big leagues
When Braves third baseman Chris Johnson takes the field for Sunday night's game against the Angels, his dad will be in Syracuse, handling his duties as the manager of the Triple-A Norfolk Tides. Another Father's Day will pass without the two enjoying each other's presence.
But while baseball has separated the Johnsons for most of their lives, it has also served as the root of a bond that has brought them together since Chris has gained a sense of what separated him from his father throughout most of his childhood.
"I think the biggest thing about Father's Day for me is that I've been able to get back that relationship with my son, because this business has a way of taking you away from people," Ron Johnson said with the tone you would expect from a proud papa.
Since concluding a Major League playing career that included 22 games spread over three seasons (1982-84), Ron Johnson has spent most of the past 30 years serving as a Minor League coach and manager. He returned to the big league scene as Boston's first-base coach during the 2010 and '11 seasons and then assumed his current role.
As Chris was growing up, he did not understand why his opportunities to communicate with his father were limited. But now that he has been blessed with a chance to also experience the nomadic baseball lifestyle, he has a genuine appreciation for those days they shared together.
"It's something I didn't understand going through my high school years and in college. I really didn't get why he was away so much and why he's so hard to talk to at times," the Braves infielder said. "But when I got into pro ball, everything started to click, and I realized what he had been going through and how hard it is to stay in touch with others. So getting to pro ball definitely helped our relationship."
After his parents divorced when he was in elementary school, Johnson spent a portion of his summers with his father in whatever Minor League city he was employed in that year. At a young age, he had a chance to interact with the likes of Johnny Damon and get a sense of how a professional baseball player prepared on a daily basis.
"We woke up, went to the yard, took batting practice and watched games," Chris said. "It's like my life now. Not too much has changed."
Except now, the father-son bond shared by the Johnsons is as strong as it has ever been. They communicate via phone conversations or text messages on a daily basis.
"Every time I call him now, regardless of how I'm doing, he asks me if I'm having fun," Johnson said. "That's the first thing he asks me. He doesn't care about results. I'll even tell him, 'I'm 1-for-my-last-20,' and he says, 'I don't care.' He'll look at some of my film and tell me what I'm doing wrong, but for the most part, he just cares about me having a good time and enjoying it."
While the opportunities have been few, the elder Johnson has savored those chances he has had to be present to watch his son play. Ron was present for the Major League debut Chris made with the Astros on Sept. 9, 2009, and he was at Turner Field for last year's National League Division Series against the Dodgers.
"I'm like any other dad who watches their kid play Little League and then in high school and gets excited for the Draft," the Tides manager said. "But now, I get to see it on the big stage. When I watch highlights or last year in the playoffs, it really is hard sometimes to really let it sink in. I'm still at that point. I've been in the game for a long time and I try to keep a certain level of professionalism, but when it comes to Chris, that is all out the window. I'm just like any other guy in the stands."
Well actually, the former Red Sox first-base coach could not act like a fan when Boston went to Houston for an Interleague matchup in 2011. Outside of Spring Training, this three-game series stands as the only time the Johnsons have been on the same field wearing different uniforms.
"That was awful actually," Ron Johnson said. "I thought that was going to be real exciting. Then when you get out there, you're not torn, because I'm not going to lie to anybody, I want my kid to do well. But at the other time, the other team has to win the game."
The experience was not much better for his son, who recorded a pair of hits in the opener and then went hitless the remainder of the series.
"He's seen me play so little," Chris said. "So every time I see him at a game, I panic. You can ask him. I [stink] every time he comes to watch me play, because I want to do so well. But it's fun. I like when he's at the games and gets to watch me play."
Though he was primarily watching from afar, Ron Johnson thoroughly enjoyed watching his son nearly win the NL batting title race last year. But he was even more excited about the chance to spend a portion of January with him, simply relaxing and strengthening their father-son bond.
"Seeing how he's evolved and seeing the man he has turned into and also the baseball player, my chest is sticking out when I watch him and hear things about Chris," Ron Johnson said.
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.