Lt. Johnston finally reporting for duty

Jonathan Johnston turns 27 next month. Ideally, he would be entering his fifth full season of professional baseball. By now, he should have reached Triple A — maybe even the majors. The Oakland A’s might be talking about him as a potential backup catcher for a 2011 team that is expected to be very good.

But here’s the reality: The United States is at war, and the Navy wouldn’t let him play.

Bitter? No, that’s the wrong word here. Johnston isn’t bitter. He wants to make that clear.

Johnston respects the United States Navy. He has a deep appreciation for the lessons it taught him, both at the Naval Academy and through four-plus years on active duty. He understands why the Navy rejected four separate requests for him to be placed in the reserves so he could pursue his dream of becoming a major leaguer.

“But,” Johnston admits, “I’m not going to say it was easy.”

It was, in fact, the opposite of easy.

Rather than earn promotions through the Oakland farm system, Johnston was deployed three times.

He went to the Persian Gulf twice — aboard the USS Peleliu, an amphibious assault ship; and the USS Curts, a frigate. He helped to defuse a pirate attack on a Singaporean vessel in the Gulf of Aden. And as far as August heat, the Texas League has nothing on Bahrain.

But now Johnston is off active duty, almost certainly for good. And when the independent California Winter League opens Saturday, he will suit up for his first nine-inning, keep-score game since June 9, 2008 — when the Navy called him back to active duty just 36 games into his professional career.

Johnston spent that half-season with the Kane County (Ill.) Cougars, Oakland’s low Class A affiliate. The A’s drafted him in 2007 and have kept his rights ever since, through the 31-month hiatus in his playing career.

The organization’s reward: The happiest (and perhaps grittiest) player in organized baseball will be in their minor-league camp this March.

“In 2008, I remember going through every day, thinking, ‘This is so awesome,’” Johnston said Wednesday, after his first California Winter League workout. “Then today, we were taking BP. After I got done with my round, I was watching the other guys hit, just taking a knee. I looked over at the guy next to me, and I just said, ‘Man, I love this.’

“That’s how it is for me now. It definitely makes me appreciate it a lot more. I know what it’s like to think you’re never going to play again.”

Johnston graduated from the Naval Academy in 2006 but couldn’t begin his baseball career until two years later, after the Navy issued an order enabling him to do so. Without warning, the Navy changed course at midseason. During a road trip in Iowa, Johnston received notice that he had to report to San Diego for immediate deployment.

“It was shocking,” recalled Justin Friend, a pitcher for Kane County that season. “We all got to the ballpark around 2. We had to stretch at 3, and he was just packing his stuff up with tears in his eyes. We thought he got released. He wouldn’t say anything to anybody.

“Then the manager came out and said what was going on. I think we all kind of thought, ‘I can’t believe this is happening.’ He just went from being our starting catcher and friend to a guy who’s fighting in the war.

“It was, ‘What if? What if something happens to him?’ It was a crazy, crazy situation.”

For Johnston, the news was heartbreaking. And yet, he understood the bargain that comes with the Naval Academy: You get a first-rate education for free, but then the Navy owns you. Johnston entered into the deal for the most selfless of reasons: As the oldest child in his family, he wanted to help his parents afford college tuition for his younger siblings.

So, he said no to Vanderbilt and Penn. He became Lt. Johnston instead. Then he earned seven individual medals, four unit medals, and expert marksman ratings for the M16 rifle and M9 pistol.

Any regrets?

“I’ve been asked that question so many times,” he said. “I wouldn’t change a thing. I wish I could have played more, but it is what it is. I had great experiences in the Navy.

“I was a division officer for four years. I usually had about 20 guys I was directly responsible for. To see them succeed, that’s what it was about for me. I wasn’t going to make it a career in the Navy. I knew that. But I wanted to make them better. I feel like I did that. I hope I did.”

The Navy has an option for its officers to leave active duty one year early if they meet certain criteria; Johnston qualified based on his service time, and his request was granted last Sept. 30. He must serve four years in the reserves but is currently classified as Individual Ready Reserve, a unit highly unlikely to be called back to active duty.

At last, he can play games again. Now comes the question: How good can he be?

Physically, of course, Johnston won’t have any problems. He has excellent footspeed for a catcher and stole 35 bases in his final season at Navy. He is fanatical about weightlifting and known for being in impeccable shape. “He’s got a six pack. The guy is totally shredded. He had noooo problem walking around with his shirt off,” laughed Friend.

Baseball, though, is a game of repetition. And it’s hard to throw and swing on a warship.

“It feels like it’s been 10 years,” Johnston said. “You’ve got to realize this: Until that point — when I was 24 years old — I had played baseball since I was 4. I had been playing nonstop for 20 years. Now I haven’t played for 2-1/2. It’s kind of weird.

“I don’t know if you’ve read the Josh Hamilton book, but when he got back into it, after his rehab, everything kind of fell into place. The only thing that was weird for him was running the bases.

“I’m just going to take everything in. It really makes you enjoy every minute you’re out there.”

Will Johnston develop into a big-league prospect? That’s hard to say. But he has more factors working in his favor than you may think.

Much of the minor-league experience relates to developing maturity and mental toughness. Check and check.  Some prospects think themselves out of the game by fretting about where they stand in the prospect rankings. That’s not a concern with Johnston.

And as a left-handed-hitting catcher, he has two attributes that generally enable players to advance quickly in an organization. At this point, though, his bat is an unknown. He batted .228 at Kane County.

But remember: Tough, intelligent catchers don’t need to hit .300. Johnston is the cerebral, reliable type who leads naturally and has kept notebooks on opposing hitters since college. Dusty Napoleon, the backup catcher on that Kane County team, described Johnston’s painstaking preparation as “major-league caliber.”

“He has one of the best arms, by far, of the catchers I’ve played with,” Friend said. “He can really catch and throw. … He was always really stern on what he said, but he was also the first one to congratulate you when you did something good. You really trusted him. He was the best student of the game.”

Ask Johnston about the big leagues, and he will tell you that, of course, it’s his goal to get there. He could become the first position player to graduate from the Naval Academy and reach the majors. (According to, the only Annapolis big leaguer was Nemo Gaines, a left-handed pitcher born in 1897 who made four relief appearances for the 1921 Washington Senators.)

Yet, Johnston doesn’t view the major leagues as a pass/fail measure of his baseball career. And though he won’t say so himself, in the realm of true achievement, his accomplishments stand above many athletes who have attained greater fame and fortune.

Jonathan Johnston believes that he has a chance. At this point, is anyone going to tell him that he won’t make it?

“I’ve always told myself, ‘Hey, you can still do this,’” he said, reflecting on that first workout. “Today was like, ‘Hey, I know I can.’ The muscle memory was there. Now, I just need to do the repetitions to perfect it, like I had before.

“When I threw down to second base, everything was in sequence. It was quick. I felt fluid. And I just said under my breath, ‘There it is …’”