Johnson making most of chance
Right-hander impressive in Spring Training comeback bid
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- For nearly three full years, Jonathan Johnson's once prized right arm remained dormant. Occasionally, he'd display it during a local men's league game or while he was on one of his Christian missions in Cuba.
But for the most part, Johnson's right arm had become a forgotten commodity. It had been 11 years since its power and precision had prompted the Rangers to choose Johnson as the seventh overall selection in the 1995 First-Year Player Draft.
And it had been seemingly forever since the right arm had provided any indication of living up to its once tremendous potential. But all of this didn't seem to faze Johnson. With baseball in his past, he now had the opportunity to take care of his more pressing desire, which was to provide stability to his family.
"My family was definitely always a step or two ahead of baseball," said Johnson, whose remarkable rebirth in baseball has brought him to Spring Training as a member of the Braves' 40-man roster.
When he takes the mound for the Braves in their exhibition season opener against Georgia Tech on Wednesday, Johnson will be reminded of just how much his life has changed over the course of the past 365 days.
A year ago, while pursuing entrepreneurial interests in Columbia, S.C., he found himself content and committed to providing stability for his wife and three children. But now he finds himself provided with the boyhood dream of pitching for the Atlanta Braves.
"I really believe that God opened this opportunity for a reason," said Johnson, a devout Christian. "I'm not sure what it is yet, but there's no reason that I should be here right now.
"For me to sign with Atlanta last year was enough of a story in itself, but to end up on the roster and even have a long shot to make this club is beyond anything I would have imagined."
While spending his adolescence in multiple southeastern U.S. cities, Johnson developed a passion for the Braves. But while playing for 11 different clubs and four different organizations from 1995-2003, he never found the Braves as his employer.
That all changed in May when the Braves were desperate to find pitchers and Johnson was willing to give baseball another try.
"He's always had a wonderful arm and he's a wonderful kid," said Braves bench coach Chino Cadahia, who served as one of the organization's Minor League coordinators last year. "So we took a shot."
After being drafted by the Rangers, Johnson found that pitching wasn't nearly as easy as it had been during his successful days at Florida State. When he took the mound for the Astros at Fenway Park on the fateful evening of May 13, 2003, he was making just his 42nd Major League appearance.
Over the course of the previous eight years, he'd made nearly 200 Minor League appearances and never gained the feeling that he was providing his family with any sense of stability.
After Johnson issued the Red Sox eight walks in just three innings on that May evening four years ago, he knew it was time to make a change. He'd failed to find stability with the Rangers, Padres and Diamondbacks, and now the Astros were sending him back to Triple-A New Orleans.
One month later, a completely healthy Johnson determined it was time to walk away from the game. With mixed emotions, his wife tried to play devil's advocate, but together they knew retirement was in the family's best interest.
"I just decided that I wasn't willing to be a nomad," Johnson said. "I loved the game. But after three consecutive years of being with four different teams and between Triple-A to the big leagues and from the East Coast to the West Coast, it was just too much for my family to bear."
Over the course of the next 2 1/2 years, Kristin Johnson seldom felt her husband regretted his decision. Around the time Spring Training started every year there were some hints that he longed to be back with his baseball buddies. But for the most part, he simply enjoyed being successful at his endeavors in real estate and land development.
Johnson's rebirth began with a phone conversation with former Minor League teammate T.R. Lewis, who was beginning his life as a player agent. Johnson told his good friend that he'd still been throwing. A few days later, Lewis asked if he had any interest in making a return.
Still with some reservations, Johnson agreed to throw a bullpen session with Clemson's pitching coach Kevin O'Sullivan. A few weeks later, O'Sullivan told Andy Barkett, who served as a Minor League instructor for the Braves last year, that he'd been impressed by what he'd seen from Johnson.
Suddenly, Johnson was on the Braves' radar, but it was another two months -- when they were desperately looking for pitchers -- that the Braves finally scheduled a workout for Johnson.
The night before driving to Jacksonville, Fla., to throw a side session in front of Cadahia, Johnson found himself coaching his oldest son's Little League game. Less than 24 hours later, he found himself once again with an opportunity to get back to the Majors.
Less than a week earlier, Johnson had thrown over 100 pitches in consecutive games during one of his missions to Cuba, but obviously, he still had enough left to make a positive impression.
"I thought I was wasting their time," Johnson said. "But by the time I got home, there was a contract worked out. It blew my mind. I couldn't believe it."
Johnson was initially targeted to go to Double-A Mississippi. But with the Major League team having already placed Horacio Ramirez, Kyle Davies and Lance Cormier on the disabled list, there was a need for him at Triple-A Richmond.
"Everything just happened so crazy and so fast," Johnson said. "I went from literally sitting on the couch and working 60 hours a week with my businesses to being in a Minor League uniform in Richmond, just being in awe because I couldn't believe I was doing it again."
In 23 appearances, including three starts, for Richmond, Johnson worked 51 2/3 innings, posted a 3.48 ERA and registered 46 strikeouts. All the while, he was impressive with a fastball that was being clocked in the mid-90s and a hard curveball.
Had he not been bothered by back spasms, the Braves would have added Johnson to their expanded Major League roster in September.
"He's got a strong durable arm with good stuff," said Braves third-base coach Brian Snitker, who served as Richmond's manager last year.
Through recommendations provided by Snitker and other members of the player development department, the Braves decided to place Johnson on the 40-man roster. Had they not chosen to do so, he would have likely ended his brief comeback bid.
Had Johnson dropped out, he would have denied himself the opportunity that he's had over the past few weeks. With his entire family with him he's been able to get a taste of being a Brave and at the same time have the chance to enjoy all of Disney's entertainment amenities with his children.
But most importantly, he's definitely caught the attention of the club's Major League personnel. Both manager Bobby Cox and pitching coach Roger McDowell have said that Johnson certainly has a shot to start the season in Atlanta's bullpen.
"Just from watching him throw his side sessions and in batting practice, he's pretty impressive," said McDowell, who has said he's been impressed with Johnson's fastball, changeup and breaking ball.
If Johnson doesn't earn a spot on the Opening Day roster, he believes there's a 90 percent chance that he'll once again retire. And if that proves to be the case, he'll still treasure the opportunities that he's been granted over the course of the past year.
"I felt like the guy who was laying dead on the operating table and now I have life," Johnson said.
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.