Tell Alex Johnson you're a longtime fan and receive one of three replies:
"What do you want from me?"
Johnson is bitter, caustic and slightly funny. Ask him what he's up to, and expect a quick snap: "Putting a clutch in a truck. That O.K.?"
Fine, Alex. Fine. If nothing else, Johnson more than lives up to the billing on his lone SI cover: THE FALLEN ANGEL. At the time, Johnson, a slugging leftfielder for the California Angels, was being ripped by teammates, coaches and fans for about a zillion
reasons—from poor attitude to lazy fielding to flat-out lying. These days, as owner of Johnson Trucking Service in Detroit, Johnson says, "I can do whatever the hell I want."
When he was released by the Detroit Tigers in December 1976, Johnson, now 55, all but annulled his relationship with the game and plunged into his truck-repair and leasing business as if his rocky, 13-year major league career had never happened. "I used to think, f--- the game," he says.
That bitterness stemmed from his second season with the Angels. In 1971, the year after he had won the American League batting crown—his .3290 average was .0004 better than that of the Boston Red Sox' Carl Yastrzemski—Johnson was fined, benched five times and suspended for 88 games for a lack of hustle and a lousy attitude. In a way, he was the original Rodman (without neon), a brooding, confounding sort who could go 4 for 4 one day and fail to run out grounders the next. Managers were enticed by his talent, but not his personality.
"There came a point when I was stereotyped wherever I went," says Johnson, a divorced father of two. "I remember showing up for the first day of spring training with a new club, and the manager called me into his office. He said, 'You've got no trouble with me, I've got none with you. Understood?' That shows how people thought of me."
So, at age 34, with a .288 career batting average, 1,331 hits and a scarred reputation, Johnson hung it up. The ensuing 21 years have been enough to change him from Alex Johnson, troublemaker, to Alex Johnson, truck guy, at least in the minds of most Detroiters. "Do I enjoy my life?" Johnson asks rhetorically. "I enjoy not being on an airplane all the time. I enjoy not having to face everything I did. I just want to help people with their vehicles. It's a nice, normal life—the thing I've always wanted."
COLOR PHOTO: FRED KAPLAN [Cover of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED featuring Alex Johnson]
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID WALBERG [Alex Johnson]
"In a way he was the original Rodman, a brooding, confounding