By Bob Elliott
Only one man in Ontario really qualifies as a true friend of Josh Donaldson’s.
And that’s Tyler Johnstone.
The two played in the same Auburn Tigers infield in 2005 and 2006.
Johnstone grew up playing for the Erin Mills A’s in Mississauga, then the Ontario Blue Jays, Connors State College, Purdue University before transferring to Auburn where the friendship blossomed.
Despite all the bus trips, good times and bad times they experienced together, friendship has its limits. Donaldson basically banned Johnstone from Rogers Centre for Game 5 of the American League Division Series against the Texas Rangers.
“I know Tyler’s father (Rick) well, Tyler’s wife and two kids and I’ve been to his house,” Donaldson said Thursday at the Rogers Centre. “Friendship only goes so far. Last year every time he came to a game we either lost or I didn’t do well.”
Johnstone attended the first two games of the ALDS -- the first in Toronto since Johnstone was nine -- as the Jays lost 5-3 and 6-4 in 14 innings heading to Arlington, Tex. to fall behind 2-0 in the best-of-five series. Donaldson was 1-for-7, playing only four innings of Game 1 after hitting his head sliding into Rougned Odor’s knee.
The Jays won both games in Texas to force Game 5. Johnstone phoned the day before the game inquiring about tickets.
“Josh told me I can’t come, ‘you have to do it for your city, you have to stay home, you can’t be in the stadium, sacrifice yourself so your city can advance,’” Johnstone said Thursday night.
Fun stuff. Clubhouse humor.
Or so it appeared.
Johnstone called the morning of game and Donaldson said he was still not unsure if Johnstone should be allowed in the building. The MVP told Johnstone to phone later when the third baseman got to the park.
“Tyler calls when I was in the clubhouse. I put it on speaker and put it to a vote ‘look every time my former teammate from Auburn, a real good player, comes to see us play we lose or I play bad. Do we let him come to Game 5?’”
The quorum of Troy Tulowitzki, Ryan Goins, Russell Martin, Chris Colabello and others voted thumbs down on Johnstone getting Donaldson’s tickets for Game 5.
“I did it, stayed away, did it for my city, am I the 10th man?” laughed Johnstone, who watched possibly the most astounding Jays inning (Martin’s toss off the bat of Shin-Soo Choo as the lead run scores, three Rangers errors and Jose Bautista’s bat flip) from his basement with his wife and brother-in-law.
So, was it Bautista and his bat flip which allowed the Jays to advance to the AL Championship Series, the Rangers infield or was Donaldson’s personal jinx holed up in the basement in Milton, which allowed the perfect comeback storm for the Jays or all of the above?
“It was devastating to miss Game 5, I would have paid any amount,” Johnstone said. “Money was not the problem, it may have been the greatest game in the history of the franchise and I’m not there,” .
Johnstone says any time he drops that line on Donaldson the MVP replies “yeah ... but we would have lost with you there.”
* * *
After playing for Erin Mills and coaches Robert Boileau, Dan Wells and George Williams, Johnstone headed to the Ontario Blue Jays to play for coaches Dan Bleiwas and Sean Travers and then it was on to the Connor State Cowboys in 2002.
The next year he transferred to the Purdue University Boilermakers where he hit .310 with five doubles, two triples, a homer, 17 RBIs and a .769 OPS.
In 2004 he did not play do to an arm injury. Karl Amonite (Windsor, Ont.) another Ontario Blue Jays grad, also missed the season due to injury.
And in 2005 both Amonite and Johnson returned to the Tigers in a big way as Auburn pounded the Hofstra Pride 18-5 at Plainsman Park. Coming back from bicep surgery, Johnstone went 4-for-5 with four runs and two stolen bases in his debut, while Amonite had two hits and a career-high five RBIs, including a three-run home run in the first inning.
In the seventh game of the season freshman right-hander Donaldson make his first appearance as a Tiger holding the Mercer Bears to one hit in two innings in a 6-5 win. It wasn’t until nine games later that freshman Donaldson singled home the game winner against Clemson.
Auburn opened the Tallahassee, Fla. regional at Dick Howser Stadium with a 13-5 win over South Alabama before 2,033 fans as Donaldson had three hits and knocked in a pair, while Amonite had two hits, including a homer and two RBIs. Johnstone had two hits and drove in a run.
Then, came back-to-back losses to Florida State: a 4-3 setback before 6,398 fans as Donaldson hit a two-run homer, while Johnstone and Amonite each had one hit apiece and then a 10-4 loss in front of 4,814 fans as Donaldson homered, singled and knocked in three runs, while Johnstone had one hit.
Johnstone started 60 games at second hitting .328 and scoring 53 runs. First baseman Amonite started 58 hitting .365 with 25 doubles, a triple, 11 homers and 59 RBIs, with a 1.123 OPS and third baseman Donaldson batted .294 with seven homers and 26 RBIs in 39 starts appearing in 47 games. He only pitched the two innings.
“Tyler was two years older, but he and I were friends right away,” Donaldson said as the 36-24 Tigers were eliminated.
* * *
If you were around the 2015 Blue Jays and were within ear shot of lefty David Price he mentioned the SEC conference once or two thousand times. Price pitched for the Vanderbilt Commodores and Donaldson were both sophomores in 2006.
“We faced him, he was throwing 98 mph,” Donaldson recalled. “Once we faced him in Nashville in 25-degree weather. We were using aluminum bats and it was so cold the ball wouldn’t travel. We did OK facing him, but he went 1-1 the next year.”
Johnstone and Donaldson each started 56 games for the 2006 Tigers, who went 22-34. Johnstone hit .332 with 10 doubles, a triple, a homer and 29 RBIs while stealing 15 bases in 19 tries. He had a .821 OPS. Donaldson batted .276 with 16 doubles, a triple, 10 homers and 42 RBIs, with an .818 OPS.
Johnstone headed to the Winnipeg Goldeyes in the independent Northern League for a short stint.
The Tampa Bay Rays selected Price first over-all in North America while Donaldson went 48th over-all to the Chicago Cubs in 2006.
“David has honed his craft well since then,” said Donaldson.
Johnstone then had a short stint with the class-A Savannah Sand Gnats in the New York Mets system before getting on with life. Still he and Donaldson stayed in touch.
* * *
Johnstone has work to do to shed his jinx title. He watched a 3-0 win over the Boston Red Sox April 10, saw the Jays lose 10-1 to the Chicago White Sox April 26 and the Jays lose 6-2 to Clayton Kershaw of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Donaldson singled his first at-bat and whiffed twice against Boston’s Steven Wright figuring Johnstone was a late arrival to the game (he wasn’t). And then he homered in the eighth facing reliever Noe Ramirez.
The MVP was 0-for-4 in the loss to lefty Chris Sale and the White Sox.
Facing Kershaw and the Dodgers, Donaldson was 1-for-4.
Half the 2005-06 Auburn infield has played RattleSnake Point, Glencarin, Glen Abbey and other courses together. (“He always takes my money,” said Johnstone.)
Tyler recently sold KW Team Leads a real estate software company but remains CEO, wed Jen, who is from Brampton and attended Kennesaw State on a softball scholarship. They have two children: Chole, three and Aubrey (if it sounds like Auburn it’s because it is supposed to), almost a year old.
One August night in 2013 two Auburn Tigers sat around the table in Milton. Donaldson was in town with the visiting Oakland A’s who had a day off.
They talked about old times and the future. No one broke out into the Auburn battle cry of “War Eagle.”
“Wouldn’t it be cool if some day you played for the Blue Jays,” Johnstone’s father Rick said. Rick sells commercial real estate for Morguard so he knows the future, although he too seems to pay off on the golf course.
Tyler replied “wishful thinking.”
“Sure enough, a year later ...” said Donaldson not needing to finish his sentence.
General manager Alex Anthopoulos sent Brett Lawrie, Sean Nolin, Kendall Graveman and Franklin Barreto to Oakland for Donaldson on Nov. 28, 2014.
That night Johnstone took Jen to the movies to see Dumb and Dumber 2.
“I came out, turned on my phone, there must have been 50 texts,” Johnstone said. “Josh is coming to Toronto!”
So you’re telling me there’s a chance Toronto might win.
Johnstone called his pal, who asked “Is the house beside you for sale?”
Johnstone told Donaldson he lived over an hour from Rogers Centre ... a place Johnstone hopes he’s allowed to venture into again this post season.
The Auburn years together
2005 G AB R H HR RBI SB AVG OPS
Amonite 58 208 46 76 11 59 0 .365 1.123
Donaldson 47 153 20 45 7 26 0 .294 .824
Johnstone 60 259 53 85 0 29 24 .328 .786
2006 G AB R H HR RBI SB AVG OPS
Johnstone 56 229 43 76 1 29 15 .332 .821
Donaldson 56 228 39 63 10 42 1 .276 .818