MIAMI — Charles Johnson took a familiar pose Sunday, crouching behind the plate to receive Jeff Conine’s ceremonial first pitch before the Miami Marlins played the San Diego Padres.
The retired former Marlins catcher caught the ball while enjoying two things he never experienced on hot summer afternoons at the team’s former home: a roof overhead and the ballpark’s air-conditioning system.
“To me, this ballpark has got to extend guys careers — to be able to play on grass in the A.C., that’s pretty good,” Johnson said “It don’t get better than that.”
Johnson joined eight other former Marlins in attending Sunday’s game to help celebrate the team’s 20th anniversary season. Also present were former pinch-hitting specialist Lenny Harris, former manager Tony Perez, former coach Tony Taylor, former infielder Alex Arias (1993-97) and former outfielder Bruce Aven (1999).
Former Marlins outfielders Preston Wilson, Cliff Floyd and Conine — all part of the team’s FOX Sports Florida’s television crew — also took part.
Speaking in a suite during the first inning, Johnson continued to rave about Marlins Park. It was his first trip to the ballpark since being on hand to christen the venue on opening night last season.
“Without a doubt, around July or August it really pays off,” he said of playing indoors. “There were times during batting practice at the old stadium we would go in and change shirts. We would sweat out the first shirt, so we’d go in and change to go back out during batting practice. It used to be really hot. It would really drain you.”
The former University of Miami star had two stints with the franchise: 1994-98 and 2001-02. Johnson was the Gold Glove in each of his first four full seasons and was a member of the Marlins’ 1997 World Champions.
Johnson currently lives in Planation, Fla., with wife, Rhonda, and sons Brandon, 14, and Beau, 12. Brandon plays football and basketball; Beau focuses on baseball.
“I’m a full-time Dad, I’m not doing very much,” Johnson said. “I just want to spend a lot of time with my boys. In this day and age and how kids are now, I just want to be with them.
“I want to at least get them through high school, then I can figure out things I want to do as far as career-wise — if I want to get back into baseball, if I want to do something TV stuff.”
Johnson, who’ll turn 42 on July 20, hit .245 with 167 homers and 570 RBI in a 12-year career that ended in 2005. Known as one of the era’s best defensive catchers, Johnson was asked if he had any advice for the Marlins current young staff.
“You really have to stress first-pitch strikes,” he said. “I think sometimes, young guys come to the big leagues and they want to get a little fancy, they want to show their entire repertoire, but first-pitch strikes are huge to a young kid.
“Most guys try to pitch so the hitter won’t make contact. But some of your great pitchers, like Greg Maddux, they want you to hit it — they’re not afraid of contact. A lot of young kids are afraid of contact. It’s OK, that’s why you have eight guys out there, it help you out.”
Johnson said he believed former teammate and fellow ex-catcher Mike Redmond was the right man to manage the Marlins.
“Red’s always been a good leader,” Johnson said. “And as a catcher, he was always a good general on the field. I knew right away he was going to be a good manager. In due time, a lot of that is going to show.”