By Robert Weintraub
Chris Johnson didn't check his phone that morning. It was Jan. 24, and it wasn't until he had finished a workout at the Arizona Diamondbacks' spring training complex, and headed to breakfast that he pulled the cell from his pocket.
He had 65 text messages.
The bacon and eggs would have to wait.
Johnson might have wanted to order some grits, for the avalanche of texts signaled he was heading to Atlanta, part of the trade that also brought Justin Upton to the Braves. But beyond his contact list, few cared. Johnson's inclusion in the deal was relegated to the small print. Of the seven players involved in the trade, Johnson might have been the least remarked upon. All anyone cared about was what the Braves gave up for Upton -- All-Star third baseman Martin Prado and several prospects. The Associated Press story from that day is typical. Johnson's name is mentioned just once, as a parenthetical note. He was an afterthought, addendum.
No, worse than that -- he was a throw-in, one of the most odious terms in the sporting lexicon.
That throw-in happens to be leading the National League with a .336 batting average, to go along with nine homers and 53 RBIs (prior to Saturday night's action).
"Obviously it's a surprise," Johnson says of his lofty perch atop the charts. "Every kid dreams of growing up to become a baseball player, and then goes past that to dream of leading the league in hitting. But even the kid knows it's not a reality. It's a shock for me when I look up at the scoreboard and see myself up there."
The Braves hoped against hope that the throw-in could help replace the Hall of Famer. With Chipper Jones off to await enshrinement, Johnson was to be the right-handed half of a third base platoon with Juan Francisco, one that would tread water until a long-term solution presented itself.
"Chipper was kind enough to retire so I could have my opportunity," Johnson says with a smile in the bowels of Turner Field before the Braves tangled with the Nationals, whom Atlanta has already buried in the NL East race.
Johnson made the most of that chance. By early June, he had such a hammerlock on the position that the Braves shipped Francisco to Milwaukee for a minor leaguer, although this may have been a preemptive strike to keep the lumpy Francisco away from the newly opened Waffle House inside Turner Field.
"Atlanta asked for me [in the trade], which is always nice to hear," Johnson he said, particularly since he grew up a huge Braves fan in southwest Florida. "They've really helped me a lot here," he continues. "They helped me realize what kind of hitter I want to be. It's the hardest thing for young players to realize -- do you want to be a power hitter and go for home runs, or do you want to concentrate on hitting to all fields and making pitchers work? They've actually helped me realize that I should be in between the two. I don't take as many risks at the plate as I used to."
Johnson had pretty good numbers in 2012 with Arizona and Houston (.777 OPS in 488 at-bats), but he struck out too often, walked too infrequently, and tended to reach for outside pitches. As a Brave Johnson has become a far more disciplined hitter. "I want to stay within myself," he explains, "and not try to force things. If the pitcher throws me a breaking pitch away, I'm not trying to pull it. If he throws me a fastball in, then I attack it."
Being in Atlanta's potent lineup has certainly helped. According to Fangraphs, Johnson has seen far more fastballs this season than ever before, and his line drive percentage is up as a result. Of course, the advanced metrics also note that Johnson's BABIP, which tracks batting average on balls put in play, is a sky-high .412, showing the good fortune he's having this season. A fly ball that Miami's Giancarlo Stanton lost in the dazzling Georgia sun last Sunday, turning an out into a two-run double, is representative of Johnson's providential 2013.
But on an unseasonably blustery Friday night in Atlanta, he shows luck is only part of his success. Holding his hands up above his head until delivery, Johnson stays with a slider that Washington pitcher Taylor Jordan hangs on the far side of the plate. Johnson deposits it into right-center for a single with a short and easy swing, much different than the big hack he takes at anything he sees middle-in.
"That's emblematic of my approach this season," he says after the game, a 3-2 Braves win in ten innings. "I'm not chasing, not trying to do more than the pitch will let me."
Johnson doesn't connect in his three other at-bats, thus failing to add to his dozen multi-hit games since the All-Star break, including an amazing stretch of eight straight as July turned to August. While the Braves' torrid summer has been a layered effort, Johnson's consistency at the plate has been an unexpected bonus.
Back in 2003, the Red Sox drafted Johnson in the 37th round out of Bishop Verot High School in Fort Myers, Florida, "probably as a favor to my dad," he admits. Ron Johnson was a former major leaguer turned minor league manager in the Boston organization at the time (he now manages the Orioles Triple-A affiliate in Norfolk). But the 18-year-old wasn't anywhere close to being ready to turn pro. "I hadn't filled out yet," he says. "I was 6-2, 185 pounds in high school. I was a string bean. Now I'm 6-4, 225 pounds. A totally different player."
Instead of tilting at windmills in the Boston chain, Johnson stayed close to home, attending Stetson University in DeLand, Florida, where he played with Indians right-hander Corey Kluber. Three years and forty pounds later, Johnson had improved enough as a prospect to be drafted in the fourth round of the 2006 draft by Houston. He was in the majors by 2009, but when he failed to show enough upside for the ever-rebuilding Astros, he was dealt to Arizona. From there, it was a short trip to throw-inville.
Johnson might have gotten down on himself, but a tragedy in August of 2010 kept him grounded. That day, his half-sister, Bridget, a budding equestrienne, was riding her horse, Rhonda, near the family farm in rural Tennessee when she was hit by a car. The horse had to be destroyed. Bridget nearly perished as well. Her leg was sheared off below the knee. A passer-by saved her life by applying a vise grip that staunched the blood loss.
Johnson was in Houston, trying with difficulty to concentrate on staying in the bigs while Bridget battled for her life at Vanderbilt Children's Hospital.
"She underwent multiple surgeries (more than a dozen) over several days, but the doctors just couldn't get her leg to reconnect," Johnson says with a grimace. "Finally I asked her, 'do I need to come home?' She told me no, that watching me play was the highlight of her day after so much trauma. That really hit home."
Now 13, Bridget is having as good a year as her brother, defying her handicap by competing in equestrian events with a prosthetic leg. "She's doing great," Johnson says. "She doesn't take no for an answer."
While this is most likely Johnson's apex, and his underlying numbers suggest some regression is inevitable, for now, his improbable chase for a batting title continues. Even more amazingly, the throw-in is making Braves fans forget all about the recently retired Hall of Famer.
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Robert Weintraub is the author of the books "The Victory Season" and "The House That Ruth Built." He writes regularly for the New York Times, ESPN.com, Football Outsiders, CJR, Slate and many others. Follow him on Twitter @robwein.