I had a chance to play quite a bit in the Arizona desert. Most of the games took place during the late winter and early spring days of training camp when I was with the Chicago Cubs. But every once in a while the regular-season schedule took me to Phoenix.
Let's keep it real: There are not many places hotter than Arizona in the summer. The sun is relentless. It's not unusual for bodies to overheat and minds to suffer the kind of delirium that is an incubator for bad decision-making. Even though it was December when the Diamondbacks signed free agent Kelly Johnson to a one-year deal, many fans and pundits wondered whether the team's front office had been in the sun too long. Were the D-backs seeing in him a figment of their imagination, an optical illusion of possibility?
After two strong years in Atlanta -- where he wrapped up the 2008 season hitting .287 with 39 doubles and 86 runs scored -- Johnson scuffled through an injury-plagued 2009 season, falling to .224 in only 303 at-bats. Defense was never his strong suit, so when his batting average started sinking, his glove could not provide a life preserver. To make matters worse, as Johnson's star faded, Martin Prado was ready to take over second base.
If Johnson had floundered early on in Arizona, it would not, of course, have been the first time this kind of transaction didn't work out. Virtually every team has acquired (or re-signed) a good player after a bad year, in the hope he would re-live his former glory. Or, just like the city of the sun professes, he would be that true phoenix, rising from the ashes and thriving again. The D-backs' NL West rival, the Giants, have a dugout full of players who fit that description -- Barry Zito, Edgar Renteria, Aaron Rowand and Juan Uribe, to name a few.
A change of environment may be helpful, but for a player to sustain himself in major league baseball, he has to adapt in order to stay ahead of the competition. That is why pitchers learn new pitches and hitters adjust their stances. Baseball requires constant reinvention, game to game, month to month and year to year.
I suspect Johnson came to Arizona with the hope that, like the phoenix, he would be reborn. I know the feeling. I was reborn a few times in my career.
Four years after being a first-round pick, I had a nightmare Triple-A season in Des Moines, Iowa. With a manager who certainly would not have auditioned for my cheerleading squad, I hit for an unimpressive .270 average with little productivity. Speed was my game, but I only had 13 stolen bases. Worse, I was out of position, playing right field instead of center.
I knew the Cubs had started the Glanville expiration clock, but then I got an opportunity to play in Puerto Rico. I came back with an MVP trophy and a new report card on my future.
Five years later, I lost my starting job in Philadelphia after a dismal start. The decision-makers didn't let me "play through" the slump, and from May until mid-August I rode the pine. Rebirth came with six weeks to go in the season. I got my starting job back partly because we weren't much better with me on the bench. Playing every day, I finished hitting at a near-.400 clip, notched my 1,000th career hit and then signed as a free agent with Texas to be the Rangers' starting center fielder.
Being buried in the ashes of the cycle in baseball is actually par for the course. If you don't know how to be your own self-igniter, then the person lighting the match is most likely an arsonist torching your career.
The Diamondbacks hoped Johnson had that internal fire still warming his talents, so they signed him, hoping to see a glimpse of the proven every-day player of 2007 and 2008. But in the back of their minds, they must have worried they might be buying the 2009 model, making their decision based on a mirage a heat-induced fiction.
So far, he has done nothing but reward their faith. In 31 games, Johnson's home run total surpasses what he was able to do all of last year in Atlanta. He's tied for the National League lead with 10 home runs, is fifth in the NL in slugging, and is wearing out left-handed pitchers, rolling out a .306 average with five home runs in 36 at-bats. The NL player of the month in April, he is kicking desert sand in everyone's face, making the statement that he has improved and doing it at a fast pace.
It is happening at a great time for him. He is 28 years old, hitting his stride, a future free agent with a young team that is not too many pieces away from consistently having a presence in its division. A lot of upside potential. He has handled adversity well, embodying the spirit of the phoenix.
Kelly Johnson is reborn, and like the bird of his city's namesake on fire.
Doug Glanville, who earned a degree in systems engineering from the University of Pennsylvania, played nine major league seasons with the Cubs, Phillies and Rangers. He serves on the board of Athletes Against Drugs and the fundraising committee of Boundless Readers. His forthcoming book, "The Game from Where I Stand," will be released May 11.