After playing for the first manager in Blue Jays history, Tim Johnson came full circle to start the 1998 season as Toronto’s sixth full-time manager. But despite an 88-74 finish, a bitter season-long feud with pitching coach Mel Queen tarnished an otherwise successful debut. Johnson’s own startling admission late in the year that he had lied to the team about his military service in Vietnam signaled that Johnson’s days were numbered. Sure enough, Johnson was fired two weeks into spring training and replaced by veteran skipper Jim Fregosi.
Johnson had replaced Cito Gaston, who led Toronto to consecutive World Series championships in 1992-1993 but was released after the Blue Jays ended up in the AL East basement in 1997. After a well-publicized search, Johnson beat out four high-profile finalists: former Orioles manager Davey Johnson, former Padres manager Larry Bowa, and former Blue Jays Paul Molitor and Buck Martinez. Although defending AL Manager of the Year Davey Johnson had been the front-runner for the job, Toronto GM Gord Ash was impressed by Tim’s reputation for communicating well with his players. In that sense, Ash reasoned that Johnson’s enthusiasm would be an improvement over the perceived passivity of Gaston.
But even before it was revealed in November that the Vietnam War battle stories Johnson told to inspire his players were complete fabrications, the rookie skipper had gotten off to a rough start with his new team. Veterans Ed Sprague and Pat Hentgen both had issues with Johnson’s managerial style; after the season, Cy Young Award winner Roger Clemens demanded a trade. Some players resented Johnson for what they saw as favoritism amongst players who had been with him while coaching the Red Sox, such as Jose Canseco, Roger Clemens and Mike Stanley. “We all wanted the season to get over with as quickly as possible,” outfielder Juan Samuel later told the Toronto Sun. “I never left a clubhouse as quickly as I did on the last game of the season.”
Johnson’s feud with his coaches — especially pitching coach Mel Queen — created perhaps the biggest rifts in the clubhouse. The reason behind the acrimony between the two was never stated — Queen had been with the organization since 1986, and was well-respected by many of the Jays pitchers — but it permeated through the Blue Jays coaching staff like a cancer. Third-base coach Jack Hubbard, fired in October, said he was let go because he sat next to Queen in the dugout against Johnson’s orders. When first-base coach Eddie Rodriguez was fired less than two weeks later, some said he was canned for siding with Johnson.
The public revelation a month later that Johnson had lied to his players about what he claimed were his own experiences in Vietnam (Johnson actually spent the war stateside with the Marine reserves) and his subsequent apology after cautious denials ended any credibility Johnson had left as manager. Upon first hearing the news, the Blue Jays had offered Johnson the opportunity to resign. He was eventually fired less than six months later.
The disgraced skipper caught on as manager of the Mexico City Red Devils, prompting player agent Alan Meersand (a former marine) to ask if he had begun “telling his players he fought at the Alamo.” But Johnson led Mexico City to the championship and made a brief return to the majors the following season as an advance scout for the Milwaukee Brewers.
Johnson’s playing career had been far less controversial. He had a modestly successful start in the Dodgers’ farm system, winning a Silver Glove as the best fielding minor-league shortstop in 1970. He broke into the major leagues with the Brewers after being traded for cash in 1973, but was replaced by future Hall-of-Famer Robin Yount in 1974. Johnson’s career was marred by injuries and finally ended in 1979 with a lifetime batting average of .223. He played his last two years in Toronto under Roy Hartsfield, the expansion Blue Jays’ first manager.