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Blanchette: In Montana, he’s bigger than Hannah

Sun., April 26, 2009

Bobsledders from Jamaica are now an Olympic cliche, but the initial silly incongruity sold a lot of T-shirts.

You’re not supposed to find hockey players from Huntington Beach or swimmers from Senegal or honest men in Congress, but occasionally you do.

In the clubhouse of the Seattle Mariners, a media battalion huddles around Ken Griffey Jr. as he relaxes in front of his locker before a game during the last homestand. Though there is an empty stall on either side of him, the spillover is such that someone’s backside – media backsides can be ample – crowds catcher Rob Johnson, tilting back in his chair two lockers over.

“Already talked to him about it,” Johnson says with mock petulance. “I said, ‘We can’t be having any more of this.’ ”

Junior is a rare baseball bird, to be sure, but he is a salmon-crested cockatoo inflaming everyone’s infatuation while a Rapa fruit-dove 10 feet away is ignored.

Rob Johnson is rarer still. He’s from Montana.

It might not sound like much to you, but in major league baseball he’s like finding a 1913 Liberty Head nickel hiding between the sofa cushions.

He is also the starting catcher on the 12-6 leaders of the American League West, a combined circumstance that doesn’t so much qualify as rare as much as it falls into the “What the hell?” category.

The Mariners were supposed to struggle mightily just to avoid picking up where they left off a year ago – which was a loss for every million bucks in payroll – and can’t-miss Jeff Clement was going to finally displace Kenji Johjima behind the plate. But the M’s didn’t get the memo, Clement didn’t get anything out of the infield in spring training and Johjima pulled a hamstring the second game of the first home stand.

So then: Robbie Montana, poster child for possibility.

“It’s all you can hope for – getting an opportunity and taking advantage of it,” he said.

That he is hitting 78 points better and has twice as many RBIs as the bird in the nearest locker is only half of it. In revamping the M’s, general manager Jack Zduriencik acquired some outsized personalities – Griffey, Mike Sweeney – at the top end to lead and lighten things up. At the opposite end, he scrounged some scufflers – like independent lead refugee pitcher Chris Jackubauskus – happy for the chance. The hope was to meet in the middle with the survivors of last year’s toxic clubhouse and Johnson is an ideal addition – humble, hard-working, no drama.

What else would you expect out of Butte, America?

Johnson understands his singular distinction. Actually, there was another Montanan in the majors last year – pitcher Kam Mickolio, traded by the Mariners to Baltimore in the Erik Bedard deal. The two had even been batterymates in Tacoma. But Mickolio is back in Triple-A now.

Before that, pitcher Jeff Ballard – who won 41 games with the O’s and Pirates – was the last Montana major leaguer, in 1994. No more than 10 players who actually grew up in the state can be traced to the big leagues, which isn’t all that surprising.

There aren’t that many Montanans and there’s no high school baseball.

The game there will always be an afterthought. When Sports Illustrated picked the state’s top 50 sports figures of the 20th century, only two baseball players made the cut – Ballard and Orioles great Dave McNally, who was at the top of the list. When The Missoulian newspaper followed with its own top 100, the disrespect deepened – the writer submitting to a man-crush on former University of Montana quarterback Dave Dickenson and ranking him ahead of McNally.

Let’s see. Guiding the home team to a national title in third-tier college football? Or winning 184 major league games, two rings, throwing 33 shutouts and hitting a grand slam home run to win his own World Series game? Wow. Cliffhanger.

So Johnson has always known what he has to overcome.

In high school at Butte Central, he played linebacker, guard on the basketball team and threw the javelin and ran relays. But in between, he’d find an indoor batting cage and film his swing and send the tape to a Triple-A catcher he befriended at a camp in Arizona. He made his way to California to play junior college baseball and then to Houston, where the Mariners discovered him and made him a fourth-round draft pick.

So he wasn’t an unknown, just a curiosity.

“Coming up, I remember Eddie Guardado grabbing my belt buckle and giving me a hard time about it,” Johnson said. “I got the Montana hazing, but not so much anymore.”

Now he gets the Six Degrees of Rob Johnson treatment.

“People will come up and say, ‘Hey, I went to school with your parents’ or ‘I know your uncle Howie from Anaconda.’ Or cousin Matt from Missoula,” he said.

“I hope I can bring them a lot of pride, because it is an honor to be playing in the big leagues and I do appreciate everybody’s support. Even if I don’t know them, I know them – these are the people who watched me play tee-ball in Whitehall or playing basketball in the Civic Center.”

Fact is, he’s their Junior. The rarest of birds.


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