They only made one of the baseball lifer who didn’t go by either his first or last name.
This man went by RJ, someone who had a special way about him.
Ron Johnson was full of personality. He also loved to dine at the the Old Canteen, a restaurant located on Providence’s historic Federal Hill. Spend enough time in his company and he would show you pictures of the horses that lived on his Tennessee farm, or provide a here-and-now updates of Savannah, Cheyanne, and Bridget – his daughters.
No PawSox story is complete without a reference to RJ, the gregarious and affable man who occupied the manager’s office at McCoy Stadium for five seasons (2005-09). Sadly, Johnson left this world this past Tuesday morning at age 64 following an unfortunate bout with COVID-19.
Within the Red Sox organization, Johnson had the respect and approval of everyone he came in contact with. Charged with the quest of casting a wide net where the opinions of players, coaches, front-office types, and broadcasters with ties to the PawSox and Red Sox were successfully sought, let’s hear from those who knew RJ the best.
PawSox 1B/OF under Johnson from 2005-09:
Upon hearing of RJ’s untimely death due to his short battle with COVID-19, I felt a heavy blanket of grief fall over me. I immediately thought of his family and the tremendous grief they must be going through. Then I selfishly started thinking about the experiences I had and how fortunate I was to be able to spend time with one of the good ones.
By “good ones,” I don’t just mean baseball people. RJ was a fantastic person in general. I felt like he had a wonderful ability to put himself in other people’s shoes in order to understand a situation before passing judgement or giving advice. He was one of those guys whose politics or beliefs you didn’t know, but it didn’t matter because you loved the man’s jovial and optimistic attitude! I don’t know a lot of people like that.
When it came to the business of professional baseball and how he approached his job as a manager and player developer, there are two distinct attributes that RJ was better at than any other instructor/advisor I had ever experienced.
The first was the ability to never lie or blow smoke to his players. Most people don’t enjoy confrontation. As a professional baseball manager, you have call-ups and send downs and everything in between that make for a lot of uncomfortable situations. RJ handled these as directly as possible and even with a bit of humor some of the time.
RJ also loved calling himself a “frontrunner.” if you were playing well, he was your best friend. If you weren’t playing so hot, he would leave you alone until you came to him for advice. To me, that’s what the best instructors do – boast on you when you’re good to keep your confidence going and not pattycake you when things are tough in order to see what you’re made of. I’d like to make it clear that RJ would make this “frontrunner” policy very clear by orating this notion to the entire team at the beginning of every season. I know the PawSox front office heard this speech many times, and I’m sure the local media also caught wind of it a few times!
The second important asset RJ possessed was his philosophy of letting the players play.
What I mean by this is that he wasn’t one to over-coach or micro-manage during the game. Obviously, he still gave his signs in-between pitches, but there were certain situations where he would look at a hitter in a bunt situation and just gesture to bunt or even just yell it at the hitter. He would say, “The other team knows we’re going to bunt so why over complicate it!”
Sometimes in a 3-1 count, he would go through his signs and give nothing, but then look at you at first and just point to second base, meaning steal! Again, the opponent knew we were probably stealing on that pitch anyway! RJ was constantly reiterating for us to have fun and I was very appreciative to him for this as the lifestyle was a tremendous grind and could at times be intolerable if you weren’t enjoying what you were doing!
One last personal anecdote I would like to include was the time I received my first big-league call up [in 2007]. It was about 2:30 in the morning and we were at a truck stop somewhere outside of Rochester, New York. I was standing in line at a Roy Rogers about to get a burger. RJ walks up me and bluntly says “You’re going to Detroit in the morning, they’re calling you up.” Now, at the time I was hitting a tremendous .250 and was pretty cranky from lack of sleep so I didn’t believe him. I think I told him it wasn’t funny and walked away to get my burger.
As I walked away, all I could hear was him laughing loudly. A few moments later he came back up to me, still laughing and explained that he wasn’t joking. The Red Sox needed a right-handed bat against left-handed pitching and it just so happened I was leading the team in hitting against lefties. He walked away still laughing at my disbelief!
RJ was and always will be a very important character in the story of my life. I could probably write a book based upon the years I got to be around the guy! I loved and respected the man not just for teaching me how to be a better baseball man, but for showing me a better way to approach life.
Red Sox Director of Player Development from 2002-05. Current General Manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates:
Working with RJ was one of the real pleasures of my time in baseball. He was endlessly optimistic, always focused on finding solutions even when there didn’t appear to be any, and was just a blast to be around.
I remember many nights after PawSox games, sitting in his office watching the end of the Red Sox game or another MLB game and just talking baseball and laughing. Though his office wasn’t the cleanest place in the world, and you never really knew what you’d find on his desk or couch, I always looked forward to this time.
One specific memory I’ll never forget was when RJ was managing in Portland. The owners of the Sea Dogs, Dan & Bunny Burke were friends with George H.W. and Barbara Bush. Every summer, the Burke’s would host a lobster bake for Sea Dogs players and staff at their house in Kennebunk, ME. Usually, the President and First Lady would stop by – Secret Service and all. One time I got to go. Somehow, RJ got himself seated right next to Barbara and they hit it off like old friends.
But sitting next to RJ and food was no joke. You had to be prepared for a lot of it to end up on you. Within 30 minutes Barbara was covered with lobster shells and sea water and laughed all the way through it. I’m not sure anyone but RJ could get away with doing that to the First Lady, but he was one of a kind.
Red Sox Director of Player Development from 2006-11. Current General Manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks:
He was such a larger than life personality … always able to connect with so many different types of people. You had to avoid the coffee spills and the Copenhagen flying in your food during meals, but he was always happy, loved players, and laughed at everything. There was never a day he was not excited to see you or talk on the phone. He loved to tell me stories about what players did to get ejected or what players’ reactions were to getting called up for the first time.
The one story we joked about every time we spoke was the  game we deemed the “Mother’s day Massacre.” We were in Buffalo completing a previous game and went into the ninth inning with an eight-run lead and gave up nine runs in the bottom of the frame. I’m not sure it was even Mother’s Day, but we retold that story as one of our darker days together with the Red Sox. He loved to retell the details from the dugout as it was unfolding. We always laughed about it.
He is going to be missed.
PawSox broadcaster from 2006-11. Current radio voice of the Cincinnati Bengals and University of Cincinnati football & men’s basketball:
For a manager, Triple-A baseball can be tough. You have guys coming and going. No one is happy to be there. Everyone is so close to where they ultimately want to be that they can taste it, and yet, some of them are never going to get there. RJ had a unique ability to still make it joyous for everyone every day.
More than any manager I’ve been around, he allowed [myself and broadcast partner Steve Hyder] to be part of the group. When he conducted his first meeting with the team after all the guys had arrived in Pawtucket, he allowed the broadcasters to listen in. We got to hear his initial speech to the players. The gist of it was that if you can’t play for me, you can’t play for anyone.
He allowed Steve and I to be members of the kangaroo court. Toward the end of the year when the players and coaches fined each other for basically humorous grievances during the course of the season, we were subjected to being fined and were. I will always be grateful. That was awesome.
As I’ve thought about RJ since the news of his passing, the other thing that stood out to me was that I had never met anyone in life who openly spoke about how much he loved his wife. That’s a wonderful thing to be remembered for. He and Daphne had a fantastic relationship and he always mentioned how great she was. I think that’s a wonderful part of his legacy.
PawSox pitching coach from 2008-14:
He made everybody feel special. He cared about everyone. Not just players, but also the fans. He always had your back whether you needed it or not. His players loved him. Two rules are all he ever had. Be on time and give him 100 percent.
PawSox Vice Chairman. Held the rank of PawSox President when Johnson managed in Pawtucket.
This industry of ours would be a lot better off if everyone played the game and lived around the game with the same joy that RJ had. We all loved him. He kept the place happy and lit up any room he walked into. He made it fun for everyone he came in contact with.
To get in the middle of the circle of trust that he held each day before batting practice where he spent 10 minutes basically cutting up everyone on the team with a joke of what they did good or bad, I never saw anyone get away with that like he could.
He was the best!
PawSox 1B/3B under Johnson in 2005 & 2009. Also played for Johnson in Double-Trenton (2002) and Double-A Portland (2003):
RJ was one of the greatest coaches that I ever played for throughout my entire baseball career. He loved the game and loved the players within it. He was always laughing and making the experience in the minors more enjoyable. He also pushed us to learn the game and appreciate it every day.
The circle of trust before stretch was one of my favorite memories, as well as the movie selections on the bus rides. A great husband, father and friend. He loved his family and was always excited when then came to visit.
The world lost a great man!
Watch below for some of the best moments with RJ in the Best of Wired. In honor of RJ, YurView New England will air the full show in February. Check your local listings.