For Rays first baseman Dan Johnson, the toughest part of spending the 2009 baseball season in Japan was, well, playing baseball.
His wife, Holly, and their children, Kaden and Blake, both preschoolers then, "thought Japan was great," he said. "They got to see and experience a lot of stuff most people won't. It was awesome."
But it's never fun playing for a last-place team. The Yokohama BayStars finished 51-93 and 42 1/2 games out of first. A separated shoulder delayed the start of Johnson's season. In 117 games, he hit 24 home runs with 57 RBIs but batted .215.
"After one year, I couldn't take it anymore," he said. "I was just worn out. Every day was a practice day. Every day. The off days were practice days. On travel days you'd go to the field and practice."
But his biggest problem, he said, was the strike zone. "I mean, it's huge over there." When he returned to the Majors in 2010, he'd look at pitches off the plate and think, 'Wow, that's a ball? Oh yeah, that's right.'"
Johnson was drafted by Oakland in 2001. He spent most of 2005 through 2007 with the Athletics. Tampa Bay claimed him off waivers on April 18, 2008, but four days later, the Rays traded for Gabe Gross and shipped Johnson to Triple-A Durham, where he remained until Sept. 9 when the Rays called him up.
He arrived at Fenway Park too late to be in the starting lineup. No problem. He'd contribute later. With Tampa Bay trailing, 4-3, he was sent up to face Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon in the top of the ninth -- and hit arguably the biggest home run in team history.
The pinch-hit blast over the Red Sox bullpen tied the score. Tampa Bay got the winning run later in the inning, remained in first place in the American League East and won the division by two games over Boston. Johnson finished 2008 batting .200 in 10 games with the Rays.
His agent, Bobby Barad, said it appeared Johnson would be back with Durham in 2009, "but he fit the profile of an attractive player for Japan. They like guys with big league experience, some power. I called Dan, asked him if he was interested. He was."
About a month passed, "then Bobby called me," Johnson said. "He told me, 'Here's the deal. It's $1.2 million with Yokohama,' and I was like, 'OK, I'm on.' I would've been making the minimum ($400,000) with the Rays. It was well worth it for me.
"They put me and my family up in a great place to live. Saw the country, 6,000-year-old Buddhas, Mount Fuji. We love Japanese food, never had any problems," he said.
Johnson learned basic Japanese. By the end of the season, he did without interpreters most of the time. "I would pick out the words that I did know -- bits and pieces of what I could understand," he said.
During road trips, Johnson hung out a lot with teammates who spoke no English. "I think they saw I was putting an effort into learning their language, so they really treated me well."
When Johnson left for Japan, Barad said he spoke to the Rays, "sort of giving them the right of first refusal" if he returned. On Jan. 11, 2010, they signed him to a $500,000 contract. He split the season between Durham and Tampa Bay. This year, he signed a $1 million contract.
"If he can have a relatively good season," Barad said, "he might have a home with Tampa Bay for five or six years, and he'll definitely out-earn what he would have if he'd stayed in Japan."
For the time being, Johnson's biggest connection to Rays history is his 2008 shot in Boston. "I really hope I make a lot more memories so it's more than just the one home run," he said. "But it's not bad to be known for that home run, either."
Bruce Lowitt is a freelance writer based in Tampa, Fla.
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.