By Zac Boyer, Courant Staff Writer, July 24, 2007
reprinted with permission


MANCHESTER - About 10 minutes before the game, Gene Johnson is filling out his lineup card, jotting down names and positions as quickly as he can. He has other work to do. His main priority is the field, which had been soaked by rain for nearly two hours. Concerned about having to reschedule the game, Johnson scribbled names on the white sheet of paper, briefed his players, grabbed his rake and headed back to the pitcher's mound.

For Johnson, 70, who has been affiliated with the Twilight League for 54 years, it was business as usual. Patrolling the field in a white T-shirt - soaked with a combination of sweat and water - and his baseball pants, he tried to fight off anything that might give him reason to cancel the game. When the umpires found such a reason in the mud that had been caked around home plate, they sent home both teams, but not before Johnson returned to the field with his rake to try one last time to save the night.

That competitive, hard-working spirit has made Johnson one of the league's top managers, earning him, by his count, 33 regular season titles and 17 playoff championships. He has put together another first-place team this season, keeping Foss Insurance at the top of the standings with an 18-3 record.

Rather than concentrating solely on some of the top college and local talent, Johnson looks for success by sticking to the players he knows best: his sons and grandsons.

"It's the greatest thing in the world," Johnson said. "We've always been a baseball family. The boys have always been baseball rats. They've always been at the ballpark, following me around."

Early Exposure

After taking his first swings in the Twilight League as a 17-year-old in 1953 and graduating from Manchester High School in 1955, Johnson signed with the New York Giants. The contract launched a seven-year tour that would see him stop in Muskogee, Okla.; Lake Charles, La.; and Cedar Rapids, Iowa, then continue on to Eau Claire, Wis., and Austin, Texas, as a member of the Milwaukee Braves farm system.

He left the Austin Senators in 1960 after refusing a demotion to Class B. He was hitting .331 at the time and had just gone 3-for-5 with a home run, double and three RBI when he got the news. He went home to the only competitive league in Connecticut he knew of.

Johnson played five years in the Twilight League before becoming a player-manager, a role he filled until becoming a manager full-time 10 years ago.

"At that point, it took me two triples to score from first base," Johnson said. "Only in the most dire emergencies [will I play]. I'll go hide somewhere."

Now, he tries to mimic the professionalism and compassion of his former managers, including Hall of Famers Travis Jackson and Earl Weaver, by refusing to be called coach and looking past his players' mistakes. Still, Johnson hasn't put away the bat and glove for good - his most recent appearance came last season, when he chose to avoid a forfeit against Simsbury by suiting up as the team's ninth player. Although he went 0-for-3, he was pleased that he still made contact.

"I hit three ground balls to the third baseman," he said. "But if the ball ever got to the outfield, he would have thrown me out at first base."

Child's Play

Despite the uncertainty of player availability, Johnson has known for years he could count on his son Jeff to make an appearance at each game. At 40, Jeff has been around the Twilight League for nearly his entire life, starting as a 4-year-old batboy and taking his first at-bats for his father at 13. After playing for Rockville High School and at Eastern Connecticut State, Jeff pursued a professional career by signing a free agent contract with the Atlanta Braves in 1988, following his brother Mike, who was drafted by the Texas Rangers in 1981.

He spent two seasons with the Braves' minor league affiliate in Greenville, S.C., then moved to California for three years, where he met his wife, Nichole. Jeff decided to return to Connecticut in 1993 to be closer to his family and, rather than let go of his passion for the game, went back to the ballpark to play for his father.

"He comes and picks me up before every game," Jeff said. "When I get in that truck, I feel like I'm 10 years old. That's the best part about it, I feel like a kid."

That enthusiasm nearly died out two years ago when Jeff felt like he could no longer play at a competitive level. After being invited to play in a vintage Negro League baseball game in Birmingham, Ala., in February 2006, Jeff spoke with his manager, former Yankees pitcher Jim Bouton. When Jeff confessed to Bouton that he was considering giving up playing, Bouton told him he continued to play in a league in Buffalo at 57 simply because the passion never died inside him.

"It was a wonderful experience on every level," Jeff said.

Adding Insurance

Jane Foss, who runs the Twilight League along with her husband, Mark, has known Johnson for more than 30 years. Johnson originally sold the two a car as a salesman at the Moriarty Brothers dealership, beginning a relationship that would strengthen in 2004 when Gengras Motors declined to renew his team's sponsorship and Foss stepped in.

"I was at spring training in Florida and he called me and said, `I don't have a sponsor, what should I do? Should I try to sell it or just disband it or what?'" Foss said. "And at that point, I said, `I'll do it.' Get me at the Red Sox game and I'll do anything."

Since that point, Johnson has grown even more connected to his family. This season, Foss Insurance's roster includes three of his grandchildren. Dan, 19, who finished his freshman year as a pitcher at the University of New Haven, and Sam, 15, who is a catcher at South Kingston High School in Rhode Island, are the sons of Gene's son Mike. Nick Rimsa, 16, who plays baseball at Loomis Chaffee in Windsor, is the son of Gene's daughter, Helen Rimsa. Evan Bailey, the son of Gene's daughter, Mary Ellen Bailey, has been known to help out his grandfather's team on occasion, and Jeff's son, Jack, 6, is following in his father's footsteps as the team's bat boy.

Through it all, Johnson said he was especially thankful for the support of his wife, Helen, to whom he has been married more than 50 years. As any longtime manager would, Johnson also reverted to the adage that a manager is only as good as his players, and he knows his family is a reason he has been able to do what he has in the Twilight League.

"Thankfully, they all ended up liking baseball," Gene Johnson said. "I never pushed them, but they were exposed to it and they just kept coming in and hung in there. It's great. It's beautiful."


Contact Zac Boyer at zboyer@courant.com.
Copyright 2007, The Hartford Courant

       



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