Johnson thrives during trying rookie season
Astros third baseman gains perspective from sister's accident
Chris Johnson has the pattern memorized.
That's because it's so distinct, you see. And in that distinctness comes familiarity. With the familiarity comes comfort. Through the comfort comes that desirable feeling that everything is going to be all right.
It's certainly predictable, which is what happens when your dad begins nearly every conversation for as long as you can remember the same way. But the two questions are critical enough to Ron Johnson that he'll willingly sacrifice spontaneity for monotony each time he picks up the phone to call his son.
Chris, a budding young third baseman for the Astros, answers, knowing he must wait for his dad to spit out the eight one-syllable words.
"Did you play hard?" Ron will ask first. Always to be followed up by, "Did you have fun?"
The simplicity of the questions is staggering. So, too, is the richness that the conversation starter adds to the relationship between a son following in his father's Major League footsteps, and a father ensuring that his son keeps success and failure in appropriate perspective.
Chris admittedly craves that perspective, and the need was certainly there as he picked up the phone to talk with Ron on the first day of August.
His 14-game hitting streak had come to an end that afternoon, albeit in a come-from-behind Houston win. But Chris was also dealing with one of baseball's cruelest realities. The Trade Deadline had just come and gone, nabbing two of Houston's marquee players in its passing. The departures of Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman had left a palpable void in the Astros clubhouse, one that everyone there was still figuring out how to accept.
Dad had experienced all this before, Chris knew. He would know what to say.
Yet when Chris spoke to his father that day, Ron dropped his most jarring lesson in perspective yet.
At some point in the conversation, Ron might have asked his habitual pair of questions. Chris doesn't remember. What Chris recalls is only how suddenly his own identity changed.
By the end of the conversation, he was no longer a baseball player. Stripped down, he was nothing but a big brother.
"It was tough," Chris said recently, pausing before recalling the news he received that Sunday.
Chris' sister, Bridget, days away from her 11th birthday, had just been rushed to a Nashville hospital. The horse she was riding down a rural Tennessee road had been struck by a car. Bridget's left leg was severed at the knee from the accident.
Days away from what was to be Bridget's first day in sixth grade, no one in the family knew if Bridget's leg could be reattached.
"Anything that happens like that, it makes the 0-for-4s not so bad," Chris said, almost two months later. "But we're a strong family, and we're going to get through it."
In the days that followed, Chris and Ron spoke incessantly. Ron, a first-base coach for the Red Sox, had been granted a leave of absence so that he could spend his days by his daughter's side at Vandy Children's Hospital.
While there, Ron continued to dole out pieces of advice, as fathers never can resist. But these were different lessons.
What's done is done.
Make the best of it.
Focus on playing.
Ron urged -- borderline demanded -- that Chris keep playing. Bridget would be waiting to see her big brother in the offseason, but as she healed, watching Chris on TV would keep her mind off the realities with which she was dealing.
"That's what kept me going," Chris said. "I was actually surprised that I was doing as well as I was at that point because I was a mess."
Chris did extremely well, in fact, in the days immediately after his sister's accident. He began a fresh hitting streak on Aug. 2, this one lasting eight days. During that span, Chris banged out 15 hits and drove in 11 in a mere 32 at-bats.
Baseball wasn't only a coping mechanism for Bridget. It became Chris' release from reality, too.
"If you're thinking about things in this game, you're going to be behind," he said. "This game is hard enough."
"I'd have at-bats where I was thinking about her and would step out," he continued. "It was tough. But that stuff happens to everybody, not just me. You have stuff going on at home and you can't leave. It's tough, but it's our job."
For Chris, the past year has been laced with lessons in adversity, each situation seemingly bad until surpassed by the next. This was just the latest.
After making his mark in Triple-A in 2009, Chris was among the players the Astros called up for last season's final month. It was a dream come true for the then-24-year-old, but also a smack of reality when he spent most of September watching from the bench. Chris understood such a path was often the norm. Yet, it wasn't until this year that he truly understood -- and accepted -- the benefit.
"It was tough, because when you come up here in September, you don't get a lot of playing time," he said. "You don't start every day. You don't play every day. But being here in September really helps you learn how to handle yourself away from the field. It teaches you how guys handle their business off the field, how the big leagues work, how the travel works. That helped a lot."
Then there was that Thursday in December when Chris, while playing winter ball in Puerto Rico, learned the Astros had signed third baseman Pedro Feliz to a one-year contract. Chris had fully believed he would be serving as Houston's everyday third baseman on Opening Day. That goal now appeared squashed.
"It was tough, it was tough," he said. "I can still remember the day when they did it. I thought I was ready."
A phone call he took from general manager Ed Wade -- who promised Chris the acquisition was purely to bridge a short gap -- eased some of the concerns. Ron alleviated the rest.
What's done is done.
Make the best of it.
Focus on playing.
Johnsom responded to his dad's advice. He had a sensational Spring Training, earning himself a spot on the Astros' Opening Day roster when Berkman began the year on the disabled list.
However, the elation of being in the big leagues -- and even getting to play this time around -- was short-lived. A strained rib cage had him on the DL two weeks after the season had begun. When he healed, Johnson was back in Triple-A. He remained stuck there for two months.
"Growing up, you put the big leagues on such a high pedestal," Johnson said. "Yeah, you can be confident in yourself, but proving that you can actually do it, that's a different story."
Proof came not long after. A torrid stint in Triple-A prompted the Astros to summon Chris to the Majors in mid-June. This time, Chris was there to play. Given management's promise that he would keep starting regardless of the results, Johnson relaxed. Then he shined.
With 17 hits in his first 10 games, he ignored the learning curve. His batting average only kept climbing, hitting .349 up until the day of his sister's accident.
His production hasn't tailed off much since, and Johnson deserves to be mentioned among the best in a stellar rookie class. He ranks in the top 10 among National League rookies in average, home runs, RBIs and hits despite not playing regularly until the final week of June.
"I've surprised myself a little. But this is what I was hoping to do," he said. "It's kind of surreal right now to think that I'm here."
He's not just here, either. Chris appears a legitimate cornerstone in the organization's next wave of youth. He talks openly about being a part of the next Astros core and about the comfort in knowing that he doesn't have to prove himself to earn playing time.
He'll end the 2010 season, too, feeling an unbalanced combination of relief and satisfaction and renewed perspective.
Relief that he successfully seized his opportunity.
Satisfaction that he's made his dad proud.
The perspective? That has been Bridget's gift to her older brother, who will leave Houston in just days to travel to where his mind has been for the past two months.
And as much as Chris relishes all that has gone right on the field this season, he can't wait to go home and see his sister.
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.