Yesterday, fellow Blue Jays blogger Ian at the Blue Jay Hunter released the results of a survey he created that asked readers to name the quintessential Blue Jay. The winner was Joe Carter. My vote went to Tony Fernandez, in my opinion the greatest Jay ever. But that is not the point of this diatribe…
The point is this: though Tony Fernandez is in my eyes the quintessential Blue Jay, he is not the Blue Jay I associate most with my childhood. Strangely enough, that honour belongs to Cliff Johnson.
My earliest memories of the Jays are from the 1985 season, the first year they won the AL East. That team was possibly the greatest Blue Jay squad of all time, loaded with players such as Barfield, Bell, Moseby, Fernandez, Whitt, Stieb, Key, and Henke. But it is two veteran players who always jump into my head when I picture that team – 38-year old Al Oliver, and 37-year old Cliff Johnson.
The main reason why that pair always comes to mind? Their jersey numbers. In 1985 Al Oliver wore zero and Cliff Johnson wore double-zero. They are quite possibly the only teammates in sporting history to both wear ‘0’. Apparently that was enough to land them permanently in the heart of a 6-year old boy.
This week I am featuring Johnson in the Blast From the Past section, mainly because his name popped up in the news this week when Matt Stairs broke his record for most career pinch-hit home runs.
Cliff was drafted way back in 1966 by the Astros and made his debut as a catcher in 1972. He spent six seasons in Houston before being traded to the Yankees, the first of six times he would be dealt in his career. He won back-to-back World Series with New York, but was traded to Cleveland after a locker room brawl with Goose Gossage that landed the pitcher on the DL. After Cleveland, he bounced to the Cubs, and then the A’s, before being acquired by the Jays in 1982 for Al Woods – his first of two brief stints in Toronto.
Cliff had arrived.
1983 was the first season in Blue Jays history that the team finished over .500, going 89-73. Cliff Johnson was a big reason why. Acting primarily as DH, he finished third on the team in HR and RBI (22 and 76 respectively) with a .262 average and .862 OPS. In 1984 he hit .304 with an .897 OPS leading the Jays to a second place finish.
But it is 1985 where he established himsefl as my original Blue Jay. After leaving for Texas as a free agent, the Jays re-acquired him at the August waiver trade deadline for three players. It was in his second stint with the team that he wore double-zero on his jersey. He appeared in 24 games down the stretch, hit .274 and helped Toronto win the division for the first time. He then put the Jays on his back in the ALCS, hitting .368, but couldn’t prevent the 7-game loss to KC.
Cliff returned in 1986, but couldn’t replicate the magic. He retired after the season.
Though he was never a part of playoff success in Toronto, though he didn’t (and will not) make the Hall of Fame or the Jays Level of Excellence, Cliff Johnson will always go down in my mind as the original Jay.
And likely as the best athlete to ever wear #’00’.
Cliff Johnson: Career Major League Statistics
15 seasons (1972 – 1986)
7 teams (HOU, NYY, CLE, CHC, OAK, TOR, TEX)
.258 average, 196 HR, 699 RBI, 639 R, 9 SB, .815 OPS
*Blast From the Past is a feature dedicated to bringing back the memory of classic Jays from days past – the lesser known the better. If you have any suggestions please contact 500 Level Fan.