These are the hands of a surgeon, or maybe a pianist. The palms
are smooth, pink pillows of softness. The fingers are long and
straight. The nails extend well past the fingertips in the
clipped perfection that espresso-sipping European models in
Miami Beach's SoBe district would envy. Yet these are the hands
of...a catcher? That crash-test-dummy position that leaves the
fingers of those foolish enough to play it with more doglegs
Catch this: These are also the hands that happily cleaned the
house after school, that washed the dishes after dinner, that
survived point-blank poundings of fastballs shot from a backyard
pitching machine and that have become, as evidenced by an
astonishing streak of flawless defense, the surest hands of any
catcher ever to play the game. These are the hands of Charles
Johnson, the 26-year-old Florida Marlins backstop who last made
an error when he was 24--so long ago that he cannot even
remember it. Not even Madonna looks this good in leather.
In his last 162 games, through Sunday, Johnson had more E's in
his first name than on his stat sheet. The errorless streak,
which began on June 23, 1996, eclipsed the major league
catcher's record of 159 games set by Rick Cerone of the New York
Yankees and Boston Red Sox from July 5, 1987, to May 8, 1989.
What's more impressive is that Johnson also broke the major
league mark for consecutive errorless chances long ago without
anyone even noticing. Johnson has handled 1,225 chances
(including third strikes) in his streak, obliterating the mark
of 950, set by the Yankees' Yogi Berra, that stood for 38 years.
Cerone had 896 chances in his streak.
With 14 games remaining in the regular season, Johnson was near
an unprecedented catcher's no-no. Besides his errorless streak,
he hadn't allowed a passed ball this season--all the more
remarkable considering that the Florida pitching staff features
Kevin Brown, Al Leiter and Robb Nen, all of whom throw hard and
have nasty movement on their pitches. Only five big league
catchers have made it through a season (minimum 100 games)
without a passed ball--Bill Dickey (1931), Al Todd ('37), Al
Lopez ('41), Johnny Bench ('75) and Benito Santiago ('92)--but
none of them was errorless too.
"Not to take anything away from the passed balls streak, but no
errors is just incredible," says San Francisco Giants catcher
Brian Johnson. "You're not talking about an outfielder. You're
talking about the most demanding position, having to touch the
ball almost 200 times a game. Errors are a part of the game.
Just not his game."
Charles Johnson also has thrown out 43% of baserunners
attempting to steal (he was second in the National League behind
the Houston Astros' Brad Ausmus, who had a 45% success rate) and
continues to be unsurpassed at blocking balls in the dirt. The
man who has mastered the glove and the mop has begun to show
some acumen with the bat too. A career .234 hitter at the time
of his appointment to the All-Star Game in July--which shocked
even Johnson himself--he has batted .302 since then to help the
fifth-year Marlins toward their first postseason appearance.
Through Sunday, Florida held a five-game lead for the National
League wild-card spot. No wonder Marlins manager Jim Leyland has
called Johnson the most indispensable player on the club.
"Charles is incredibly consistent with his fundamentals behind
the plate," says Gregg Zaun, his backup. "He's not reinventing
anything back there. He's just doing everything better than
anyone has ever done it."
Charles Johnson Sr. has the pitching machine aimed directly at
his son's heart. Charles Jr. is squatting in full catcher's gear
only 10 feet away in the Johnsons' backyard in Fort Pierce, Fla.
Thoomp. The baseball blasts out of the machine. The son is not
quick enough to catch it. The ball slams against his chest
protector. The boy is nine years old.
"Stop!" his mom, Gloria, yells from the kitchen window, tears in
her eyes. "Why don't you leave him alone? You're going to kill
But Charles Sr. persists, and the machine spits another fastball
that whacks the boy in the chest. Then another and another. "It
was the scariest moment of my life," says the father, then the
baseball coach at Westwood High, who still teaches algebra at
the school, about 100 miles north of Miami. "But I couldn't let
him know it."
Something remarkable happens with the fifth pitch--the boy
catches it. "He started smiling," Charles Sr. says. "It was like
a light went on. He realized, If I can catch the ball from 10
feet away, 60 feet is no problem. All fear left him."
Charles Jr. came to be in front of that machine, and to
catching, by choice. He had spent the previous year, his first
in Little League, mostly in the outfield, which bored him so
terribly that he took to tossing blades of grass into the wind.
"I want to be a catcher, Dad," he told his father. "I want to be
a big leaguer." It was a novel idea. When Charles Jr. stared
down the barrel of that pitching machine in the summer of 1981,
25 of the 26 regular catchers in the big leagues were white.
One, Tony Pena, was Hispanic. None were black.
"Yes, I did notice," Charles Jr. says. Not since 1979, when Gary
Alexander was behind the plate for the Cleveland Indians and
Charles Jr. was eight years old, had a major league team
employed a black man as its every-day catcher. Johnson found
inspiration closer to home. His cousin Terry McGriff, a catcher
on his father's team, had just signed with the Cincinnati Reds
as an eighth-round draft pick. "Whenever we played," Charles Sr.
says, "Charles would stand behind the backstop and stare at
Terry. He was fascinated with catching."
Terry's father, Roy, and Charles Sr., both of them former
college players, began tutoring the boy. Using the Johnsons'
backyard toolshed as a backstop, they taught him about footwork,
framing pitches and blocking balls in the dirt. Day after day
Charles Sr. fired 50 baseballs into the ground in front of him;
if the boy blocked 45 of them, he was treated to a Big Mac.
Sometimes he'd cry if he failed. The shed took such a pelting
that a hole was blown through the side. "They finally just took
it down," Charles Jr. says. "A toolshed with a big hole in it
isn't much use. Anybody could have walked inside and taken
"It was hard work, and he was tough on me, but I liked it," adds
Charles Jr. "It was like yard work. You're out there in the heat
cutting the grass, but when you're done you can look back at it
and feel like you accomplished something. That's the way I
looked at it."
Says his father, "What we stressed even more than baseball was
being good and respectful around the house. Baseball was just a
game. The person, that's the most important thing."
The boy would hurry home from school to clean the house, having
it spotless by the time Gloria arrived from her job as an
accountant. The eldest of four children, he would also volunteer
to wash dishes after dinner. "My father and mother grew up
having to pick oranges and tomatoes in the hot sun," he says. "I
never had to. How hard was cleaning compared to what they did? I
was happy to do it. I still like to grab a mop and clean my own
At 13, Charles attended a baseball camp in Winter Haven, Fla.
During one game a college player attempted to steal a base.
Charles hummed a pea to second, nailing him. "I was sitting in
the stands," his father says, "and I got goose bumps all over.
I'll never forget it. Seeing him do that, I knew he was
The local papers were full of stories about Charles Jr. The
father would save them but instruct his son not to bother
reading them. "These can't help you," he told him. "It's all in
The Montreal Expos drafted Johnson out of high school with the
10th pick in 1989, but he chose to attend the University of
Miami instead. Three years later the expansion Marlins made him
the first player the franchise had ever drafted, the 28th player
chosen that year. "I had one general manager tell me, 'We didn't
take him, because we didn't think he'd hit enough,'" says
Florida general manager Dave Dombrowski.
Johnson won an RBI title in his first season of minor league
ball, in '93, and a home run title the following year. After the
'94 season the Marlins allowed Santiago to leave as a free agent
and installed Johnson as their starting catcher the following
spring. He became the first black since Alexander to become a
full-time player at his position. If that makes him an
inspiration to others the way McGriff was for him, Johnson
cannot tell by his mail. No one, he says, has written to him
with that kind of message. "It's a little strange, I guess," he
says. "But I can't tell what kids are thinking, or what they
care about. Who knows?"
In his rookie season he won the Gold Glove as the National
League's best defensive catcher, an honor he won again last
season and will surely repeat this year. He made the All-Star
team this season as a replacement for injured Todd Hundley of
the New York Mets, though he was hitting .226 at the time. "When
we told him, he didn't believe us," Dombrowski says. "He thought
it was a joke. I really believe that had a big effect on him. It
was a real confidence boost. He's hit ever since then."
Johnson also tinkered with his stance after the break--he now
hits from a more open position and with his hands higher. But he
calls those "minor adjustments," preferring to believe that he
has embarked on an upward career path similar to those of
catchers like Hundley (.213 over his first 902 at bats) and
Darren Daulton (.206 after 885 at bats) in their early days as
big league backstops. "I feel like I'm turning the corner," says
Johnson, who at week's end was hitting .260 with 18 home runs
and 60 RBIs. Says Leyland, "He's even a better player than I
thought he was. He's got a strong arm and a quick release, and
when you've got that combination, you're something special."
The newspapers are again full of stories about Johnson. "You
know what I do if I see my name in boldface, even in a short
article?" he says. "I turn the page. It can't help me any."
"C.J.," says Leiter, "isn't the vocal, take-charge type. He's
almost sheepish the way he carries himself."
Two years ago Marlins traveling secretary Bill Beck met Gloria
and Charles Sr. Beck, who's been in major league baseball since
1974, told them, "In all my years in the game I've never been
around a young player who is more polite, respectful and honest
than your son."
"If you had a daughter," Dombrowski says, "Charles is the kind
of person you'd want her to marry. I don't know if there's
anything better to say about a young man."
Johnson is spoken for. He and his wife, Rhonda, live in a Miami
suburb. Sometimes they drive north for dinner in Fort Pierce,
where the toolshed may be gone but the home schooling continues.
His father will talk to him about his footwork, reminding him
about the jab step he taught him to block balls to his side. His
mother will get on him about his hitting. "Oh, what's wrong with
you?" she'll say. "You always have two strikes."
When the meal is finished, Charles Jr. goes back to work. The
most sure-handed catcher in baseball steps up to a sinkful of
dirty dishes and says, "Mom, I'll do that for you."
COLOR PHOTO: RONALD C. MODRA Since the All-Star break, Johnson, with 12 homers, has been tagging the ball as well as base runners. [Charles Johnson in game]
SCOTT JORDAN LEVY Strong-arm tactics: Johnson has cut down 43% of the runners attempting to steal. [Charles Johnson in game]
THE GOOD HANDS PEOPLE
Last week Charles Johnson established the major league record
for consecutive errorless games by a catcher. Here are the
position players with the longest streaks without an error.
POS. PLAYER, TEAM GAMES
C CHARLES JOHNSON, Marlins 162*
1B STEVE GARVEY, Padres 193
2B RYNE SANDBERG, Cubs 123
3B JIM DAVENPORT, Giants 97
SS CAL RIPKEN JR., Orioles 95
OF DARREN LEWIS, A's-Giants 392
The ball slams against the boy's chest protector. 'Stop!' his
mom yells. 'You're going to kill him.'