Tampa's celebration cut short by tragic death

By Dave Gorgon
Special to The News-Herald

On August 21, 2004, a team of high-powered 13- and 14-year-old players from the Palma Ceia/Bayshore League in Tampa, Florida, won the Junior League World Series at Heritage Park in Taylor.
Sadly, just weeks after the World Series – on September 11 – Aaron Johnson, a 9-year-old brother of Tampa outfielder Alex Johnson, was struck by a car and fatally injured while riding his bicycle near his home.
Aaron’s mother, Bambi Johnson, said the youngster was 10 houses away from the Johnson home when he rode his bike down a driveway and did not see a car that was turning the corner. The driver of the car told police he did not see Aaron either. No charges were filed.
The close-knit Tampa families gathered at Tampa General Hospital to comfort the Johnsons and each other. A decision was made to remove Aaron from life support and donate his organs.
Instead of taking part in a celebration planned for the fall, the Johnsons’ family and friends gathered to mourn Aaron’s death. At his funeral at the overcrowded Hyde Park United Methodist Church, the Junior League teammates paid their respect and showed their fondness for Aaron by wearing their all-star uniforms and sitting in the front row. Aaron was buried in his baseball uniform.
Aaron Johnson was remembered as a boy who loved baseball and played on several teams in the Palma Ceia Little League program in Tampa. Aaron’s hero was his brother, Alex. In fact, Aaron’s goal was to become an all-star just like his brother.
Palma Ceia league President Gregory Sinadinos said everyone “will truly miss, yet always remember Aaron’s blonde hair, blue eyes and wonderful personality. Aaron was dedicated to Little League baseball and the Palma Ceia Little League, where we are honored to have had him play for the past four years.
“If there ever was a child who exemplified the ideals and standards of Little League baseball, Aaron is it... This unfortunate tragedy could not have happened to a more kind and caring family.”
Similar to 1997, when the Detroit Red Wings’ Stanley Cup celebration was cut short by the tragic limousine accident that crippled star defenseman Vladimir Konstantinov and team massage therapist Sergei Mnatsakanov, the death of Aaron Johnson left an entire community emotionally drained.
“It was a devastating time for our family,” said Mrs. Johnson, who was “team mom” of the world champs. “After spending such an enjoyable summer playing baseball and experiencing the high of winning the World Series, we found ourselves at the lowest point of our lives after Aaron’s death.”
“Our experience at the World Series last summer was the most memorable vacation we ever had as a family,” Mrs. Johnson added. “Sadly, it also turned out to be the last vacation we would ever take as a family.”
In the summer of 2004, as the boys from Tampa won game after game in district, state and regional tournaments and then in the World Series, Aaron became part of the team. In practice, Manager Dan Kirkwood let the youngster shag fly balls and even take occasional batting practice. During games, Aaron chased long home runs hit by Tampa players and made a point to return each ball to the player or his parents.
Along the way, Aaron went on the only airplane ride he remembered. In hotels he jumped on the beds and played with two other younger siblings of players. He ate a lot of fast food.
“He was having a blast,” Mrs. Johnson said. “To win the whole thing on top of that was like icing on the cake. As a family, we were having a great time.”
Aaron’s name was inscribed on the back of the championship t-shirts. After the boy’s death, family and friends in and out of the Palma Ceia baseball community raised enough money to build a playground at the baseball field. The Aaron Johnson Memorial Playground was dedicated February 19 during opening ceremonies of the 2005 Little League season. Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio joined the players and families on what was declared Palma Ceia/Bayshore Little League Day in the City of Tampa.
“Aaron grew up at the ballfield,” Mrs. Johnson said. “He had been going there since he was in a stroller and his brother was 5. We were a true baseball family. We were used to having games practically every night of the week with both boys. We ate plenty of concession stand dinners. Baseball came first in our life.
“We had overwhelming support from family, friends and especially the baseball community in our area. (The playground) is a wonderful addition to Palma Ceia and I have seen so many children enjoying themselves there while their older siblings are practicing or participating in games. It pleased us to be able to remember him in the place he loved so well.”
The Johnsons were recognized on Aaron Johnson Night before the start of a Tampa Bay Devil Rays game. The Major League baseball team presented the Johnsons with a framed jersey containing Aaron’s name and number (6) and autographed by many of the players and coaches. Alex threw out the ceremonial first pitch.
“We have been comforted by the fact that so many months later people are still remembering Aaron,” Mrs. Johnson said. “He was certainly unforgettable.”
Manager Kirkwood said the world championship and Aaron’s death will always be remembered in tandem.
“You don’t think about one without the other,” he said. “We were an extremely close-knit group – like an extended family. When it all happened, we were all at the hospital or on our cell phones talking about it. We will all remember Aaron.”
Since Aaron’s death, the Johnson family has prayed considerably. Mrs. Johnson said she and her husband, Don, found it unbearable to drive past the corner where Aaron was struck so they moved from their home into an apartment.
Now, they are contemplating a move to Ohio. Mr. and Mrs. Johnson were high school sweethearts in Coal Grove in southern Ohio. Aaron is buried next to Mrs. Johnson’s father in South Point, Ohio.
At Dale Mabry Elementary School, students and faculty members planted an oak tree in Aaron’s honor. Mrs. Johnson, who worked as a teacher’s aide at the school prior to Aaron’s death, has gone back to work at a local pie company.
The Johnsons’ prayers for some joy in their lives appear to have been answered as Mrs. Johnson is pregnant and is due to deliver a baby boy in December shortly after Aaron’s birthday.
“Certainly, no one could take Aaron’s place,” Mrs. Johnson said. “His absence is so strongly felt. The house is so quiet and we miss all the kid things we used to do.”
In June, Mrs. Johnson contacted World Series Director Greg Bzura to make a donation of $500 toward the World Series Memorial Garden located behind the dugouts and press box at World Series Field. The garden honors World Series volunteers and Taylor South Little League board members who passed away.
One of the plaques in the garden honors Bzura’s wife, Judy, who died in 2002. She volunteered alongside her husband every year of the World Series until her death.
“It made me sad when Greg told me about his wife’s death,” Mrs. Johnson said. “I’m sure he misses her terribly as we do Aaron and he probably feels her absence more acutely at this time each year as he prepares for another World Series.”
Mrs. Johnson said it was important for her to make a donation from Aaron’s memorial fund.
“We were glad to do it, believe me,” she said. “I want to thank everyone for the wonderful memories from last summer. They mean more to us than you can imagine.”