Ministry in Slovakia perfect fit for former Twins pitcher Tom Johnson

For several years, Tom Johnson lived his dream.

The St. Paul native played baseball for the University of Minnesota before another in-state team — the Minnesota Twins — signed the right-handed reliever in 1970 as an undrafted free agent. By 1974, Johnson was pitching in the majors in his home state.

"When the opportunity came for me to even have a chance to play pro ball for the Twins, I would say it was a fantasy come true," Johnson said. "It was beyond words."

Johnson enjoyed a five-year major-league career, posting a total ERA of 3.39 with 22 saves and a 23-14 record. As an undrafted free agent, Johnson was never necessarily high on the radar from a prospect standpoint, but he continued to rise through the minor league ranks.

Current Twins general manager Terry Ryan was a teammate of Johnson’s at Double-A Orlando in 1974. As a fellow relief pitcher, he got to know Johnson well. More than 30 years later, Ryan still remembers just how good of a pitcher Johnson was that year when he had 12 saves and a 1.98 ERA.

"He just got people out," Ryan said. "He had one of those wipeout sliders that he could command with the best of them. He was one of those guys that was ready any time the manager wanted to give him the ball. He was used a lot back in the day."

Johnson’s baseball career came to an end in 1980 when he was back in the minors. A shoulder injury was to blame for his early retirement at just 29 years old. So Johnson had to find a different means of employment.

That eventually came in the form of ministry. Johnson went to seminary school and found work in the Twin Cities at the Church of the Open Door. After working there for nearly two decades, Johnson and his wife, Debbie, picked up and moved to Bratislava, Slovakia, where they still live today.

Johnson began working for Good Sports International, a non-profit in Slovakia and Hungary that combines sports and mission work. The fit was a perfect one for Johnson.

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"When Debbie and I went there, we really wanted to focus on that particular aspect of helping kids," Johnson said. "We’ve basically started a Boys and Girls Club, all of which is designed not only to give kids really engaging activities to participate in . . . but also to teach them some skills. We’re trying to do anything we can do to help these kids improve their life and the chances of being a productive member of society."

Johnson still gets back to Minnesota every now and then. Ryan saw him recently at spring training in Fort Myers. The work that Johnson now does helping kids doesn’t surprise Ryan, who remembers what Johnson was like when they shared the bullpen together back in the 1970s.

"He was a good teammate. He was a tremendous human being," Ryan said. "He was everything that you’d ever want in a member of the organization."

Johnson might not have had the longest of baseball careers, but his time with the Twins and in the majors afforded him the opportunity to eventually move on to ministry. More than 30 years since he last played baseball professionally, Johnson has still made sports a part of his life — and his career.

"When we went over there and decided that we wanted to start this youth center, we kind of said, ‘We will do whatever we can do well and the kids are interested in.’ Baseball is something I know how to do, so it’s like it became a natural part of me," Johnson said. "It’s really great to watch these kids who are coming up and learning the game turn around and work with younger kids.  . . . That’s kind of a value that’s been instilled in our program, that if you get something poured into your life, you need to turn around and pour it into someone else’s life."

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