Braves Pitcher Tries to Finish Comeback
Tuesday, February 27, 2007 3:59 AM EST
The Associated Press
By PAUL NEWBERRY
KISSIMMEE, Fla. (AP) — When Jonathan Johnson got to spring training, he found a trophy in his locker with the engraving: "2007 Braves Pitcher of the Year."
A mistake? Sure. The award was supposed to be handed out at one of those fantasy camps, where baseball wannabes pay for the chance to live out their dreams.
Then again, that doesn't sound too far off from Johnson's improbable journey.
"Maybe it wasn't a mistake," he quipped.
In the summer of 2003, Johnson walked away right in the middle of the season. He was tired of trying to prove himself, tired of bouncing back and forth between the majors and minors, tired to dragging his wife and kids around the country.
So the former first-round pick called it a career still two weeks shy of his 29th birthday. Johnson packed up his family, moved back to South Carolina and got his real estate license. He started working 9-to-5 and living like most folks — taking vacations in the summer, coaching his eldest son's Little League team, tucking the kids into bed every night.
But there he was Monday, trotting in from the bullpen after a spring training workout, still trying to figure out how his life took one drastic turn, then another.
"How many guys have to face their worst nightmare of retirement, and then get to come back for a second life?" Johnson asked. "How many guys get to coach their son's Little League team, then have that same child with them in the locker room?"
He knows hardly anyone has dropped the game for three years and then made a comeback. But after only a half-season at Triple-A Richmond, the 32-year-old right-hander earned a spot on the Braves' 40-man roster, which was his opening to compete for a spot in the bullpen this spring.
"He's throwing the ball hard," manager Bobby Cox said. "I can see why we added him to the roster."
Johnson was once a hot prospect, the seventh player taken in the 1995 amateur draft. He made it to the majors three years later with the Texas Rangers and figured it would only get better.
That's where his plan veered off course. Johnson struggled with the Rangers, pitching only 22 games over a four-year period and never posting an ERA lower than 6.21. He was sold to Arizona but never got called up by the Diamondbacks. He moved on to San Diego for one year, going 1-2 with a 4.11 ERA in 16 games. Then came Houston, where he finally had enough after three mediocre starts in 2003.
Johnson's final appearance came at Fenway Park, where he lasted only three innings. He gave up four hits, three runs and walked eight.
"The whole way back to Houston, I'm sitting there thinking how I was going to have to tell my wife and kids," He said. "They had already set up the apartment and unpacked all the toys. I felt like such a failure."
The son of a minister and deeply religious, Johnson prayed for a long time that night. "Why aren't things just happening easy for me?" he asked himself. "Why do I keep hitting a wall when I get to the majors?"
Instead of accepting another demotion to the minors, Johnson decided it was time to report to the real world.
"It's tough to go home and be content and be happy — no matter how strong your faith is — when you continue to feel like such a failure in the world's eyes," he said.
Johnson built his real estate business to a point where he now has 15 agents working for him. He expanded his ministry work with twice-a-year trips to Cuba, where he spread the faith through baseball.
About a year ago, a former teammate-turned-agent persuaded Johnson to attempt a comeback. He tried to catch on with a Japanese League team, but that didn't work.
Then, in a strange twist, Johnson worked out with a college coach who was about to head to Florida on a recruiting trip. While attending a high school game, the coach happened to hook up with a Braves' minor-league instructor who once played with Johnson.
The pitcher's name came up, phone calls were made and Johnson landed a tryout with the Braves, who were suffering through a rash of injuries and desperately needed arms. He was impressive enough to earn a shot with Triple-A Richmond.
"I signed for next to nothing, but they gave me a chance to pitch again," Johnson said. "I couldn't believe it."
He struggled at first, giving up 12 runs in his first 10 innings, but finished strong. He had a 3.48 ERA, 46 strikeouts and only 17 walks in 51 2-3 innings. Over the winter, the Braves added him to their 40-man roster.
Johnson feels he's a much better pitcher now than in his previous career. Instead of trying to blow away hitters with the fastball, he's working more with his change-up and trying to keep pitches down.
"He's got a big heart and he's not afraid," catcher Brayan Pena said. "I hope he makes the team."
If he doesn't, Johnson will likely retire again — this time for good. But he'll have no complaints. His wife and three kids are with him at spring training, enjoying this second chance as much as he is.
"I don't have any pressure," Johnson said with a grin. "I can always go back to being a Little League coach again."