Now he’s taken over the job left vacant when Jones retired after the 2012 season. And he still delights in saying: “I’m the starting third baseman for the Atlanta Braves.”
“I try to say it as much as possible,” he said with a huge grin.
He first met Jones while in college at Stetson University where the former Braves star’s father, Larry Jones, was an assistant baseball coach. Johnson has been thrilled he’s been able to deepen his relationship with the eight-time All-Star.
“He’s been real great,” Johnson said, adding that taking his place is a “dream come true.”
“When I got traded over here from Arizona, he reached out and we chatted and he gave me some pointers and stuff. It was really cool to have him on my side,” he said.
When Jones retired after a stellar 19-year career, the Braves were in the market for a third baseman. When Johnson was traded from the Diamondbacks in January 2013, he certainly wasn’t guaranteed the starting job. He quickly distanced himself from Juan Francisco, his competition at third, and became the man tabbed to fill the huge cleats of jones.
“I try to think about it sometimes and I try not to sometimes,” he said. “I’ve got to pinch myself a little bit thinking I’m playing third base because I’ve known Chipper to be the third baseman for the Atlanta Braves my entire life. So it’s a little strange sometimes. But then sometimes I have to focus on myself and know that I’m not Chipper Jones and try to just do what I can do.”
What he did was come through with the best season of his career. He hit .321 and finished second in the National League batting race. The 29-year-old led the team with 34 doubles, was second with 165 hits and had 12 homers and 68 RBIs.
The Braves aren’t putting pressure on him to repeat his big performance from last season — the NL East champions just want him to continue to be a productive bat in the lineup.
“He’s got that capability in him,” manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “But I think somewhere in between last year and his career numbers, which are pretty darn good batting average-wise, I think if we get that, that’s a pretty good Chris Johnson year.”
Johnson was a fourth-round draft pick by Houston in 2006 and made his debut as a September call-up three years later. He hit .308 in 94 games the following year, and became a solid starter for the rebuilding Astros until he was traded to the Diamondbacks near the deadline in 2012.
He was happy to get a fresh start with Arizona, but a bit troubled when he was dealt again at the end of that season.
“I was like, ‘Man, I don’t want to be that guy who bounces around everywhere,’” he said. “‘I want to stay with a team.’”
So he discussed his fears with his father Ron Johnson, a former major league player, who’s currently the manager of Baltimore’s Triple-A team.
“He’s somebody I leaned on a little bit when I was going through all that stuff because he knows the game and he knows what it’s like,” Johnson said. “And he told me: ‘It doesn’t matter where as you go as long as you stay in the big leagues.’ It worked out really, really well because I’m at where I always wanted to be and I’m having a lot of fun.”
He’d love to repeat or even outdo his performance from last season and is confident in his ability to do so. But he’d be just as content with reaching a different goal.
“My ultimate goal is to get back to the postseason,” he said. “The coolest thing I’ve ever experienced in my playing career was the postseason. I was so much fun. The whole offseason that’s all I thought about was the postseason and trying to get back there.”
“If nothing else happens, as long as we get back into the playoffs that will be fine.”