The Montreal Expos drafted Johnson out of high school with the 10th pick in 1989, but he chose to attend the University of Miami instead. Three years later the expansion Marlins made him the first player the franchise had ever drafted, the 28th player chosen that year. "I had one general manager tell me, 'We didn't take him, because we didn't think he'd hit enough,' " says Florida general manager Dave Dombrowski.
Johnson won an RBI title in his first season of minor league ball, in '93, and a home run title the following year. After the '94 season the Marlins allowed Santiago to leave as a free agent and installed Johnson as their starting catcher the following spring. He became the first black since Alexander to become a full-time player at his position. If that makes him an inspiration to others the way McGriff was for him, Johnson cannot tell by his mail. No one, he says, has written to him with that kind of message. "It's a little strange, I guess," he says. "But I can't tell what kids are thinking, or what they care about. Who knows?"
In his rookie season he won the Gold Glove as the National League's best defensive catcher, an honor he won again last season and will surely repeat this year. He made the All-Star team this season as a replacement for injured Todd Hundley of the New York Mets, though he was hitting .226 at the time. "When we told him, he didn't believe us," Dombrowski says. "He thought it was a joke. I really believe that had a big effect on him. It was a real confidence boost. He's hit ever since then."
Johnson also tinkered with his stance after the break—he now hits from a more open position and with his hands higher. But he calls those "minor adjustments," preferring to believe that he has embarked on an upward career path similar to those of catchers like Hundley (.213 over his first 902 at bats) and Darren Daulton (.206 after 885 at bats) in their early days as big league backstop"s. "I feel like I'm turning the corner," says Johnson, who at week's end was hitting .260 with 18 home runs and 60 RBIs. Says Leyland, "He's even a better player than I thought he was. He's got a strong arm and a quick release, and when you've got that combination, you're something special."
The newspapers are again full of stories about Johnson. "You know what I do if I see my name in boldface, even in a short article?" he says. "I turn the page. It can't help me any."
"C.J.," says Leiter, "isn't the vocal, take-charge type. He's almost sheepish the way he carries himself."
Two years ago Marlins traveling secretary Bill Beck met Gloria and Charles Sr. Beck, who's been in major league baseball since 1974, told them, "In all my years in the game I've never been around a young player who is more polite, respectful and honest than your son."
"If you had a daughter," Dombrowski says, "Charles is the kind of person you'd want her to marry. I don't know if there's anything better to say about a young man."
Johnson is spoken for. He and his wife, Rhonda, live in a Miami suburb. Sometimes they drive north for dinner in Fort Pierce, where the toolshed may be gone but the home schooling continues. His father will talk to him about his footwork, reminding him about the jab step he taught him to block balls to his side. His mother will get on him about his hitting. "Oh, what's wrong with you?" she'll say. "You always have two strikes."
When the meal is finished, Charles Jr. goes back to work. The most sure-handed catcher in baseball steps up to a sinkful of dirty dishes and says, "Mom, I'll do that for you."