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Somebody's Perfect
Tom Verducci
September 22, 1997
Already the game's best defensive catcher, Florida's Charles Johnson has been error-free this season
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September 22, 1997

Somebody's Perfect

Already the game's best defensive catcher, Florida's Charles Johnson has been error-free this season

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The Good Hands People

Last week Charles Johnson established the major league record for consecutive errorless games by a catcher. Here are the position players with the longest streaks without an error.

POS.

PLAYER, TEAM

GAMES

C

CHARLES JOHNSON, Marlins

162*

1B

STEVE GARVEY, Padres

193

2B

RYNE SANDBERG, Cubs

123

3B

JIM DAVENPORT, Giants

97

SS

CAL RIPKEN JR., Orioles

95

OF

DARREN LEWIS, A's-Giants

392

* Through Sunday

These are the hands of a surgeon, or maybe a pianist. The palms are smooth, pink pillows of softness. The fingers are long and straight. The nails extend well past the fingertips in the clipped perfection that espresso-sipping European models in Miami Beach's SoBe district would envy. Yet these are the hands of...a catcher? That crash-test-dummy position that leaves the fingers of those foolish enough to play it with more doglegs than Augusta?

Catch this: These are also the hands that happily cleaned the house after school, that washed the dishes after dinner, that survived point-blank poundings of fastballs shot from a backyard pitching machine and that have become, as evidenced by an astonishing streak of flawless defense, the surest hands of any catcher ever to play the game. These are the hands of Charles Johnson, the 26-year-old Florida Marlins backstop who last made an error when he was 24—so long ago that he cannot even remember it. Not even Madonna looks this good in leather.

In his last 162 games, through Sunday, Johnson had more E's in his first name than on his stat sheet. The errorless streak, which began on June 23, 1996, eclipsed the major league catcher's record of 159 games set by Rick Cerone of the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox from July 5, 1987, to May 8, 1989.

What's more impressive is that Johnson also broke the major league mark for consecutive errorless chances long ago without anyone even noticing. Johnson has handled 1,225 chances (including third strikes) in his streak, obliterating the mark of 950, set by the Yankees' Yogi Berra, that stood for 38 years. Cerone had 896 chances in his streak.

With 14 games remaining in the regular season, Johnson was near an unprecedented catcher's no-no. Besides his errorless streak, he hadn't allowed a passed ball this season—all the more remarkable considering that the Florida pitching staff features Kevin Brown, Al Leiter and Robb Nen, all of whom throw hard and have nasty movement on their pitches. Only five big league catchers have made it through a season (minimum 100 games) without a passed ball—Bill Dickey (1931), Al Todd ('37), Al Lopez ('41), Johnny Bench (75) and Benito Santiago ('92)—but none of them was errorless too.

"Not to take anything away from the passed balls streak, but no errors is just incredible." says San Francisco Giants catcher Brian Johnson. "You're not talking about an outfielder. You're talking about the most demanding position, having to touch the ball almost 200 times a game. Errors are a part of the game. Just not his game."

Charles Johnson also has thrown out 43% of baserunners attempting to steal (he was second in the National League behind the Houston Astros' Brad Ausmus, who had a 45% success rate) and continues to be unsurpassed at blocking balls in the dirt. The man who has mastered the glove and the mop has begun to show some acumen with the bat too. A career .234 hitter at the time of his appointment to the All-Star Game in July—which shocked even Johnson himself—he has batted .302 since then to help the fifth-year Marlins toward their first postseason appearance. Through Sunday, Florida held a five-game lead for the National League wild-card spot. No wonder Marlins manager Jim Leyland has called Johnson the most indispensable player on the club.

"Charles is incredibly consistent with his fundamentals behind the plate," says Gregg Zaun, his backup. "He's not reinventing anything back there. He's just doing everything better than anyone has ever done it."

Charles Johnson Sr. has the pitching machine aimed directly at his son's heart. Charles Jr. is squatting in full catcher's gear only 10 feet away in the Johnsons' backyard in Fort Pierce. Fla. Thoomp. The baseball blasts out of the machine. The son is not quick enough to catch it. The ball slams against his chest protector. The boy is nine years old.

"Stop!" his mom, Gloria, yells from the kitchen window, tears in her eyes. "Why don't you leave him alone? You're going to kill him!"

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