The 2012 Orioles came out of nowhere to steal our hearts. There will probably not soon be another O's team like them, if only because part of what made them so special was that they were the first winning team after so many years of losing. Another thing that made them special was the way they seemed to embody the Orioles Magic song - every game had a different star, and they are all special and worth remembering.
Of all of the players who appeared on the fringes of that team, Steve Johnson is undoubtedly the most Baltimore of those players. Johnson, designated for assignment on Wednesday as the Orioles completed the Mark Trumbo trade with Seattle, is Baltimore-born and he went to St. Paul's. More than just that, Steve is the son of another Oriole, current O's radio personality Dave Johnson, who was himself a part of an unexpectedly successful Orioles team, the Why Not? Orioles of 1989.
Steve came to us from Los Angeles, part of a 2009 trade deadline deal that sent flat-brimmed closer George Sherrill out to the Dodgers. He was almost never an Oriole at all. The O's declined to add him to their 40-man roster that next offseason and Johnson was picked by the Giants in the Rule 5 draft. They returned him before spring training was out. More's the pity for him, since that Giants team went on to win the World Series that year. The O's were lucky to get him back, though it took two more years for Johnson to make his way up to the MLB level.
After a poor showing for Norfolk in 2011 in his first taste of Triple-A (5.56 ERA), Johnson returned the next year and pitched so well for the Tides that he could not be ignored. His 2.86 ERA pitching out of the Norfolk rotation was enough to get him the call. Johnson got to make his big league debut in his hometown stadium, Oriole Park at Camden Yards, in the late innings of a July 15 game against the Tigers, before being sent back down to Norfolk.
He returned the next month as the Orioles were looking for someone to swing between the rotation and the bullpen. Johnson was exactly their guy. He showed them why right away, striking out nine Mariners over six innings in his first ever big league start on August 8, also in front of the home crowd. That win was part of an 18-9 August for the O's, and with it, the Orioles pulled into a three-way tie for the American League wild card spots. After the prior 14 years, this was unimaginable, and yet, Johnson was a big reason why it happened.
From then for the rest of the regular season, he was there when they needed him. In that 18 inning marathon in Seattle, the one that did not end until four o'clock in the morning the next day on the East Coast, Johnson was there from the 13th-15th innings. Jesus Montero did not walk off on his watch.
Days later, the Orioles needing a spot start, there was Johnson once again, sent out to face the Blue Jays in the first game of a doubleheader. He held the Jays scoreless over five innings, and in one memorable plate appearance, faced off against the invisible parrot-wielder, Edwin Encarnacion, who'd homered against him a month before:
Losing your bat while striking out swinging at a 67mph curveball should count for two outs. Not many people make Encarnacion look bad, but Johnson did it.
Although he only started in four games, the Orioles won every one of those games, including the last one, when they took a 4-3 win over Boston on September 29, pulling themselves into a tie for the AL East lead with four games to play. It's tough to remember now that the idea of "2012 wild card" is so lodged in our memories, but those Orioles were tied for the division with three games left. They almost ended the division drought that year. Johnson helped them stay close down the stretch.
When you add him in to the powerful force that was Team Steve for the 2012 O's, you really can't tell the story of the season without him. No, Johnson wasn't the biggest reason why they succeeded, but he was definitely A reason - a Baltimore-born reason. And that will always make him one special player on a special Orioles team that we will never forget.
Steve is Birdland.
With Johnson's departure, there are 11 remaining members of the 2012 Orioles on the 40-man roster.