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March 08, 2008

Rays Elliot Johnson Injures Yanks Francisco Cervelli

Elliot Johnson signed as an undrafted free agent with the Tampa Bay Rays in 2002 - out of high school. In his six seasons in the minors, to date, he's fashioned a lifetime batting average of .250 with an OPS of .702 (in 2,205 AB). He's played second base during most of his minor league career. He'll be 24-years old, tomorrow.

During the top of the ninth inning of today's exhibition game between the Rays and the Yankees, Johnson attempted to barrel over Yankees catcher Francisco Cervelli as he tried to score a Willy Aybar double. Johnson lowered his right shoulder into Cervelli and the impact resulted in a fractured right wrist for the Yankees catching prospect.

Johnson's reaction on the play, via mlb.com -

"I'm not trying to hurt anybody, especially in a Spring Training game," Johnson said. "I hope he doesn't lose his job. But I'm trying to show these guys what I can do. I'm just trying to score the run. Looking back on it, I'd have to say I'd probably do the same thing."

"With the time that I had there, the instinct was to slide and be out, or hit him and see if I could pop the ball loose," Johnson said.

You don't have to be a genius to figure out what this is all about on this play. In summary, you have a player who is an absolute non-prospect trying to make an impression that his team will notice. And, it seemed to work. Note Rays manager Joe Maddon from the same mlb.com report:

"I loved the hardball," Maddon said. "We're playing it hard, we're playing it right. It was a bang-bang play at the plate. I couldn't tell exactly where the catcher was in regard to the plate. He was trying to score a run right there, and that was part of the game."

General Joe is not happy about it. Via Ed Price:

Yankees manager Joe Girardi: "I think it's uncalled for. I'm all for playing hard, but I don't think it's the time (of year) when you run over a catcher. ... He's got to go get X-rays, from a spring-training game. I don't understand it. During the season, I'm all for it. It happens in the season. I understand that. As a (former) catcher, I understand that. Spring training -- I don't believe in it."

Was it just good ol' fashioned "hardball"? Or, was it a "bush league play"? I'm sure the Rays are convinced of the former and many Yankees think it's the latter.

This will be an interesting test for Joe Girardi. If this had happened in Yankeeland, under Joe Torre in the post-Zimmer era, Torre would have been upset, voiced his opinion, and then settled down over a nice warm cup of green tea. And, that would have been the end of it.

Will Joe Girardi elect to turn the other cheek and allow this to quell down and fade to black ala' Torre? Or, should the Rays batters be on their toes the next time the Yankees face them?

The Yankees will visit the Rays in their spring training camp next Wednesday - and I believe that Andy Pettitte will start that game for the Yankees. If I had to make a guess at this point, I would offer that, at some point in this game, a Rays batter gets a fastball in the thigh.

Just a message to Joe Maddon and the Rays as to what "hardball" is really all about.

Posted by Steve Lombardi at March 8, 2008 08:08 PM


I don't generally wish injury on anybody, but in this case my sincere hope is that this useless scrub is the victim of a vicious takeout slide at second in his first game against a Yankees affiliate. I'm thinking a Ty Cobb "spikes up" special.

It would be a hollow act, though, as he's a never-will-be and he took out a kid who has a genuine chance to play in the Major Leagues. Maybe Maddon would have a different opinion of "hardball" if one of his prospects had his wrist broken by Chris Basak or somesuch.

Posted by: Mr. Furious [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 8, 2008 09:35 PM

I would hope the yanks retaliate but I recall something from the great mind with inside info of Joel Sherman.

In his book on the Yankees 1996 team, Giradi was opposed to retaliating against a team when a pitcher had beaned Derek Jeter (something that was actually becoming common that year and would continue).

Now that was a regular season game, at the end of the season, and Giradi as catcher was against calling for the beanball (if Joel Sherman is to be believed), has Giradi changed? Will he do something or will he leave it up to the pitchers to bring about justice?

I also expect MLB to be watching this to see if there is any retaliation and they might dish out a fine or a suspension if things go awry. (i.e. the yanks bean someone and that guy charges the mound).

Posted by: Sonny M [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 8, 2008 09:37 PM

It was bush to the max.

A player needs to step up and get retribution for the team.

Posted by: Rich [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 8, 2008 10:15 PM

Ok, my 2 cents.

This isn't meant to knock anyone, but raise your hand if you currently play baseball or have played baseball for a length of time (high school, college, etc.)

The reason for the request is this: I've played in some pick up games where the rules are altered. Some drastically, some not so drastically. I've played in games where there's no sliding to prevent injury, where there's no stealing to prevent the game from getting out of control with a catcher who can't make the throws, and I've played the full up, stud-filled, run your ass over at home plate game.

Here's my point: baseball players play the game on instinct. If you're at bat, if you're on the bases, if you're on the mound or in the field, you do what your "baseball" life's experience has taught you to do. You don't have time to think about opening your hips up and keeping your hands back on a curve ball, about turning your head away on an inside pitch (in the correct direction) and likewise on a pick off move to 1B. Am I defending what this guy did? Maybe. You have a split second to make a decision, and you make it with muscle memory more than a conscious decision making process. In my opinion, anyone who thinks that this kid was running down the 3B line and had the time to think "wow, if I nail this guy at the plate, they'll really notice me!", well, then, they aren't as familiar with playing the game as they are about reading it.

And while I'm tossing grenades, Steve, your parenthetical expressions are always redundant. If you're telling us the guy has a .702 OPS in the minors, obviously it's "to date."

That's it, I'm done.

Posted by: j [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 9, 2008 01:18 AM

"The reason for the request is this: I've played in some pick up games where the rules are altered. Some drastically, some not so drastically. I've played in games where there's no sliding to prevent injury, where there's no stealing to prevent the game from getting out of control with a catcher who can't make the throws, and I've played the full up, stud-filled, run your ass over at home plate game."

I may have got off track a little on this, but my point was that, when you inject these rules that are counter-intuitive (intuitive relative to how the game is supposed to be played) they actually result in a higher risk of injury, in my opinion. When you force the players on the field to think instead of react, you get reactions that aren't the correct, pre-programmed reactions to keep you out of harms way. I'm not saying that the collision at home plate falls under this, I'm just saying that you can't fault a guy for not using his brain in the millisecond he has to make a decision in the middle of a game. It doesn't work that way on the field.

Posted by: j [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 9, 2008 01:23 AM


I have played organized ball, and exhibition games were not treated the same as regular season games.

But that aside, Johnson's own words reveal that it wasn't about "instinct":


“With the time I had there, my options were slide and be out or see if I could pop the ball loose,” Johnson said.

Obviously, he made a conscious choice to disregard the known risk that barreling into a prone catcher imposed on Cervelli. That is the definition of recklessness. He could have ended Cervelli's career, similar to the way Pete Rose did to Ray Fosse in the 1970 AS game.

And for what? A meaningless ST win. The dude needs to pay.

Posted by: Rich [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 9, 2008 03:12 AM

The dumb thing is the he would have been safe with a good slide, idiot.

Posted by: Captain Elbow [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 9, 2008 07:54 AM

This reminds me of the Phelps play from last season - just a really unnecessary, dumb play on the runner's part. Like Elbow says, a slide would have been fine and probably more successful.

I don't think it's even worthy of a wasted pitch by Pettitte or anyone else not named Farnsworth. ;-)

Posted by: Pete [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 9, 2008 09:39 AM

You really should check your facts before posting, Steve. While you are correct that Johnson is not a highly regarded prospect in the Rays system, to say he is an "absolute non-prospect" is a gross overstatement.

As a matter of fact, he has always been considered a very smooth fielding second baseman, and many thought his 2006 season was a breakout for him as he showed some pop with 20 doubles, 8 triples and 13 home runs. At the time, he appeared on many lists as a top 15 prospect in what event then was a strong minor league system. Although his 15 SBs were more than offset by his 15 CSs, in the previous 3 years he had gone 45/58, 28/33 and 15/20 in steals and was considered a good base runner.

In 2007, he bottomed out at AAA and lost his status. In that sense you are right, but he finished the year on the upswing and has looked good this spring. I doubt he will restore his luster, but he does still have a chance to become a major league reserve if he can do well at AAA in 2008. No need to demean him because you are angry that he bowled over Cervelli.

Earlier in the game, by the way, A-Rod went into second spikes high to break up a double play. Nobody was hurt, so there is no commentary on that, but that is pure luck. Try to be more even-handed in evaluating please, or is this simply a "let's rile up the pseudo-macho fans" site?

Posted by: Bob R. [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 9, 2008 09:48 AM

~~~he has always been considered a very smooth fielding second baseman, and many thought his 2006 season was a breakout for him as he showed some pop with 20 doubles, 8 triples and 13 home runs. ~~~

Good fielding minor league second baseman with some pop but with no ability to hit well consistently rarely make the majors. He's not a prospect to me. Plus, he was a NDFA out of HS - which means that no team thought he was any good back then and no decent college was willing to give him a shot. The next Ryne Sandberg, he is not.

Posted by: Steve Lombardi [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 9, 2008 11:26 AM

You don't run hardball type plays in ST ever. Joe has a right to be mad. I understand why Johnson was trying to make a play and get a chance at making the team but now someone is hurt and most likely not getting a chance at making a team. It's a boneheaded play.

Posted by: Straylightrise [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 9, 2008 12:45 PM

Ron Gardenhire makes my point for me today

“When you try not to get hurt, that’s when you get hurt,” he said. But Gardenhire made it clear that running the catcher over is not the norm for a spring training game.

I'll say it again.. yeah, he shouldn't have run over Cervelli. But if you think that players rely on conscious though more than instinct in a game you're kidding yourself. You are programmed to make a decision to score the run, not to decide whether or not you should hold up because it's a spring training game.

Gardenhire makes a good point later in his interview - he tells his 3B coach not to send the runner if it's going to be close to avoid collisions. Seems like that would have avoided this problem altogether.

So, is the retaliation going to come in the regular season or spring training?

Posted by: j [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 9, 2008 01:58 PM

You are weaseling the words, Steve. Your statement is he is an "absolute non-prospect", and I am simply pointing out that just a year ago, before his calamitous 2007, he was very much a prospect. Nobody is comparing him to Sandberg or even to Horace Clarke. I am simply pointing out that to include the statement an "absolute non-prospect" in your story is to unnecessarily demean the player.

He is most certainly a lesser prospect who was playing hard. It is absurd to think that any manager would tell his players not to try to bowl over a catcher in that situation. It is unimaginable such a conversation could arise. I mean imagine, it is pre-game and the manager is establishing the rules for various situations. "Now guys, if the catcher blocks the plate, don't bowl him over and if you are running to second, don't slide into the player trying to turn the DP. And oh yes, in case the shortstop is blocking 2B when you are stealing, be sure not to slide feet first as you might spike him. Any other dangerous situations you should consider before they occur?"

Nobody knows exactly what, if anything, Johnson was thinking. He may have realized that trying to slide would have meant breaking his own leg on the catcher's shin guards blocking the plate. Should he have done that anyway? Or he may have seen no way to the plate other than knocking the catcher over. Or any number of other reasonable perspectives. Or maybe he should have simply stopped and said nicely to the catcher, "Here I am, tag me." That would pretty much have ended his baseball career.

I have no problem with Girardi's reaction. He is upset and wants to make sure his players trust him to defend them. But Maddon is also absolutely right, as were Cecil Cooper and his catcher when Crawford bowled him over a few days ago. As long as they are not dirty plays, which they aren't, there should be no further controversy. To call for elbows to heads and the like, or intentional maiming, is wrong because there was no such intention here.

Posted by: Bob R. [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 9, 2008 03:29 PM

"don't slide into the player trying to turn the DP."

Bob R., did you see Jason Lane take out the SS for the Twins in todays game?

Posted by: j [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 9, 2008 05:33 PM

I understand both sides of the coin on this one. Girardi has a duty to stand up for his players. What message what it have sent if he said: "Good clean play out there today."

On the other side, this is a player fighting to make an impression. What kind of impression would it have made if he didn't do everything in his power to score? He played good, solid baseball.

Posted by: Chris Iafolla [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 9, 2008 05:38 PM

No. Did Lane try to avoid hard contact?

Posted by: Bob R. [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 9, 2008 06:17 PM

No, Lane didn't. He went right into the guy. He "came up" with is backside to break up the double play.

It takes less than 3 seconds to run from 1st to 2nd. If you think that a ballplayer thinks to himself "Wait, it's only spring training, let me slow down, slide easy, and make sure nothing bad happens" IN THE MIDDLE OF A PLAY you're... well.. wrong.

Same thing happened with Johnson. It's just unfortunate that it resulted in someone getting injured.

Posted by: j [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 9, 2008 06:21 PM

I disagree...you absolutely have time to decide whether or not you are going to slide hard into second base.

In fact you should already be thinking about what you are going to do before you even start running, which leads me to believe that this clown had his mind made up before he was running or during the time when he was running that if he had a play at the plate he was going to run over the catcher to make the impression he wanted to make.

If this was a reaction play by this guy then he is a bad baseball player because he is not thinking ahead while he is on the bases.

Also, everyone says he would have been safe if he had slid around the catcher, so that shows if he made a reaction play he has crappy reactions because he made the wrong choice.

I refuse to believe that his natural reaction is to bowl over the catcher because to me bowling over the catcher is something NOT common to baseball. It's NOT a contact sport so for you to make contact with someone the thought has to cross your mind first before you do it, even if its for a split second.

The main point is, he should have been thinking ahead that it's a spring training game and he shouldn't be trying to hurt himself or another player, but I think he consciously made the decision at some point, before or during the play, to bowl over the catcher.

I say all this as someone who has played baseball and I was definitely thinking about what to do before the play and during. To say otherwise would suggest you were a dumb player.

Posted by: antone [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 9, 2008 08:14 PM

We'll see what Girardi's stance is on Wednesday I guess, but I am in full favor of retaliation so if I were Maddon I would start this kid on Wednesday so, in case Girardi thinks like me lol, this kid gets the punishment for his mistake rather than, say, Crawford.

Posted by: sju38621 [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 9, 2008 10:37 PM

These are really stupid arguments incited by reporters seeking to get fans riled up to sell papers. That is why Maddon was so correct to make his statement and then refuse to be dragged into a media circus to provide, as he said, legs to a story that should not have any.

What we are getting now are speculations about what Johnson was thinking or should have thought with long distance analyses. You might as well turn to astrology to get answers. Suddenly "everyone" says if he had slid he would have been safe. What nonsense. Maybe that is one person's "everyone", but the everyone I have read state with equal certainty that the plate was blocked and he could only have hurt himself had he slid.

And suddenly the runners do not usually bowl over catchers, except that Girardi himself said it was common during the season and that he only objected to it in spring training.

There may indeed be retaliation. It may be silly, but that sort of ersatz macho tends to be the code of the game, like it or not, and I imagine the Rays expect it. If it is reasonable, that will probably be an end to it. But if it is excessive, as some fans have hoped for, then there will be a problem. No doubt some Rays' fans will complain as Yankee fans now are should a Yankee slide extra hard into one of the TB players or someone throw up and in.

But any honest assessment of what happened would be that Cervelli blocked the plate and Johnson thought the only way to score was to try to knock the ball loose. It was neither dirty nor bush nor any other such epithet. Home town fans always cheer that sort of play and visitors always complain about it making up fantasies about what happened and how to exact revenge. I suppose it is a kind of vicarious manliness. Pretty silly stuff.

Posted by: Bob R. [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 9, 2008 11:42 PM

If the plate was blocked then couldn't he have done a hook type of slide around the catcher and tried to get his hand in around him? Just a suggestion....

Posted by: antone [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 10, 2008 08:56 AM

~~You are weaseling the words, Steve. Your statement is he is an "absolute non-prospect", and I am simply pointing out that just a year ago, before his calamitous 2007, he was very much a prospect. ~~~

Bob - too bad we're not back in time a year ago, because, then you would have had a point on getting on me about claiming he's an absolute non-prospect. But, we cannot ignore his 2007 - which brought him from a C+ (grade prospect) at the end of 2006 to being a non-prospect at the end of 2007.

Or, should we just ignore 2007 for all minor leagues and just go by where they were in 2006 to determine their current prospect status?

Posted by: Steve Lombardi [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 10, 2008 09:27 AM

So many crybabies in one place and counting Girardi too. If you block the plate then you get hit what are you crying about? Oh he shouldn't have leveled him because it's a spring training game - well then the dumbass shouldn't have blocked the plate. The only thing Hinske did all last year was level Posada in September. Too bad Yankee crybabies.

Posted by: Jack Tanner [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 10, 2008 02:58 PM

I finally saw the play on tv and he would have been safe if he slid around the catcher, so they guy doesn't have the best baseball IQ and he clearly hit him on purpose because it looked like he had plenty of time to size him up before he hit him...in fact it looks like he almost went out of his way to hit him...

I think he's just a kid who was trying to make a name for himself...I still think it was a dumb baseball play...he should have slid to the right side of the plate and tagged the plate with his left hand...he had plenty of time to do that.

It really wasn't a bang bang play where the guy had no choice but to hit him. If that was the case than I could see it being ok.

Posted by: antone [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 10, 2008 06:25 PM