Our Memorial Day post last week garnered attention from an unusual source: former Navy catcher and Oakland farmhand Jonathan Johnston. In the section on Johnston, I linked to a Yahoo! Sports column by Jeff Passan. Johnston left a comment on the post, I responded with an email, an exchange followed, and before I knew it, we were making plans to speak on the phone and hopefully resolve some issues he had with the way he was portrayed in Passan’s article.
Bus Leagues: I figure I’ll get right into it. Obviously, we linked that story, from Yahoo, about you, and from emails and comments that passed back and forth between us, I got the distinct impression that you were pretty bothered by the way you came across in it, the way you were presented. You actually said that it was “the antithesis” of who you are. And when you agreed to talk to me, you said you would as long as you had your real story reflected – that came across as something that was really important to you. So what I wanted to start with was, what is it you would want to say to set the record straight regarding that story?
Jonathan Johnston: The guy who wrote that, Jeff Passan, is a great guy, good writer – I don’t think he really understood where I was coming from. And he is a writer, and I understand that it’s what’s gonna catch the reader’s eye or the reader’s ear or whatever, and I understood that. But I think some of the way he kind of changed my quotes and stuff made me sound like I was a little bit less excited about being in the Navy, which is not the case. I’m very proud of it, being able to lead people, because I have to say that I’m pretty good at it. It’s something that’s exciting, there’s good job experience, there’s all these good things. The number one thing I would want to say is that I have NO regrets about being in the Navy at all, number one. And I actually enjoy what I do, but I wanna do something else. And I don’t know if that’s selfish or not, but…
BL: That was sort of the impression that I got from speaking with you and communicating with you afterward was that you enjoyed it, and you respected it, but you had another place that you wanted to be. You have another skill that has a shelf life on it, if you want to put it that way.
JJ: Exactly. It’s not that I don’t like the Navy, it’s just that – who wouldn’t want to play baseball? I can’t think of anybody that wouldn’t want to do it, if they had the opportunity, and that’s the only question I wanted to ask by doing that article was, why am I any different than any of the Army guys?
BL: A lot of you guys came out around the same time, were drafted within a couple years of each other. Do you talk to those guys, and the guys in the Navy, compare notes?
JJ: I talked to Mitch Harris, but I haven’t talked to him – he’s playing with the military All-Star team I guess, you know about that I think.
BL: Yeah, I saw he was doing some sort of traveling All-Star team or something.
JJ: Yeah, well, I did that before I got the chance to go play in the minors, and it was what it was. I’m not gonna say it was a terrible experience, but it wasn’t like I was playing a college baseball game at all. Talking about that, he’s in the place that I was a year ago, or a little more than a year ago. He wants to play, and he’s trying to do whatever he can, whatever it is, if he happened to be playing on that team, trying to hold on, just keep his skills sharp.
Little side note: my dad’s a Legion coach, he coached for like 25 years and then he ended up coaching me. He was the assistant and we had a pretty hard, old school head coach who coached me for like five years, and I don’t talk to any of the Army guys because the way I was brought up playing, we didn’t like the other team no matter what. And that’s completely different now, I understand that, but I cannot get past that for the longest time, I just hated everybody that I played against. I never really developed a rapport with those guys.
BL: It’s kind of funny to hear it put that way.
JJ: I mean, it sounds stupid…
BL: I get it, because you get it so ingrained in you that you’re not supposed to fraternize with the guys on the other team or hang out with them or talk to them, it’s just an ingrained mentality.
JJ: Yeah, and it was appalling to me to ever even see that. So I don’t talk to those other guys, but I’m happy for them. That’s awesome that they – I think they’re doing a great service. Nick Hill, he’s doing pretty well, I’ve been following him a little bit, he’s progressing in the Mariners system, you know, he’s a great pitcher. He always had my number ‘cause, well, number one ‘cause it’s a lefty on lefty. But yeah, I think it’s awesome that people are hearing about Army. And I’m sure that wherever he goes, it’s, you know, this kid graduated from a military academy. I mean, now people are gonna pay attention to him. So I think that’s awesome for him, but I don’t really talk to him that much.
BL: So how long do you have before your commitment is done?
JJ: I have a five-year commitment, so I have two more years. Actually, two days ago was my three-year mark.
BL: Oh, wow, so you’re getting there.
JJ: Yeah, I’m almost there. Oakland’s been holding on to me. I played last year, they’ve been holding on. I’m still under contract with them. I’m trying to see if the Navy will let me go with the two-year rule. I put up another request and we’ll see where that goes. But I think I’m gonna try to get into winter ball and hopefully go back to spring training next year.
BL: So if you can get back playing, what would the Navy have you doing? Would they have you doing recruiting stuff? Because in the post I did last week, I wrote about David Robinson a little bit, and he only did a couple years of his commitment, but he was known forever afterward as The Admiral. It’s a little bit different situation, but that was such a big thing for the Navy, to have this superstar with a Navy related nickname. So it would seem to me that you would be just as valuable if you were recruiting, you know, out there as the face of the Navy.
JJ: Well, you know, I’m no David Robinson by any stretch. I’ll probably never ever be the star that he is, that everybody knows, and I know that. But I’m not one of those guys that didn’t have to work. I’ve worked so hard to become so much better in every aspect, not just baseball, but every aspect of my life. And that’s the way I would approach the off the field stuff for the Navy. In my request, I actually mentioned that as part of a professional organization, they encourage you to do community service and stuff like that, and that’s one thing that I would not even think twice about, is going out there. I was actually doing clinics in Kane County when I was playing there, just interacting with the kids, or whoever. I mean, whatever I needed to do. My whole thing is, I think I could find people that would do well in the Navy. I think I have a good idea about that, who would be able to perform well, and if I can talk to anybody, that’s all I’ve got to do, is get the name out there. So my answer to the question is, I would go above and beyond whatever I had to do to get the Navy’s name out there. And I’d have to work a little bit harder than David Robinson, to be honest with you. [laughs]
BL: Yeah, it’s not a perfect comparison, but I thought it was interesting because it shows how some good publicity and some good feeling can be generated just by a story and by you saying, “You know, the Navy has given me this opportunity to be a recruiter and to work in other ways, they’ve worked with me.” It seems like that would be more valuable to them than to have somebody who’s kind of frustrated, and who respects what he does, but is a little frustrated by the fact that there’s something else going on that you want to be doing.
JJ: Oh yeah, I mean, like I said, the Department of Defense policy actually says you serve two years then you do double the remaining service that you owe. So that would be whatever I owe, I owe two years now, two times two is four, so I would owe four years in the reserves. I would still be in the reserves, in the Navy, but I’d be playing. That’s the Department of Defense policy. The Navy policy was suspended while Secretary Winter was in office. Whether that changes now or not, I don’t know. But the opportunity is out there, I think I need to go for it. Like I told you in my email, I’ve never tried to get out of something, I’m not trying to get out of my commitment. I’m trying to do within the rules of the Navy what I can do for the Navy. I think, I’ve done three years of active service and I’ve been blessed to do some pretty amazing things and be in some pretty cool situations, and perform well in them. So, I mean, if I can do something – next year I’m gonna be going into shore duty anyway, so hopefully they let me start a little bit early and go play and do something maybe a little bit more noteworthy.
BL: Yeah, I gotta say, on a non-baseball note, I was actually fascinated from that Yahoo story about the experience that you had with the pirate attacks over off the coast of Somalia. Because obviously that was a huge issue, what, six weeks or so ago. Especially around here, I’m in New Hampshire, the captain was from Massachusetts, so it kind of got a little extra play up here, I think. I found that fascinating, and it’s kind of an off-topic note, but what goes through your mind when you get that call and they say, “Hey, we gotta go do this.” Is it just, you think of your training and you just go do it? What goes through your mind there?
JJ: Well, I’ll tell you one thing that doesn’t go through your mind: exactly what was in that article, the fact that I couldn’t think about anything else but playing baseball. What happened to me was I had just taken over the watch, I was the officer on the deck, I’m in charge of the ship. I’m the head guy in charge of the ship for the captain, because the captain’s not up there all the time. And I had just taken it, I hear the call over the radio, you know, “Mayday mayday, we’re being attacked by pirates, they’re shooting rockets at us. And this is our location.” And I go look at the chart, and it’s like, it’s right there! So, I just head right to them. I mean, it’s just reaction at that point. It’s just like baseball, you work so hard and prepare so much that you know what you want to do, and to be honest, being the type of guy that I am, I wanna go do something anyway. So, I’m going at ‘em. And I did all the reports I had to do, I called the captain, this and that, and everybody got out there eventually, but I just had to get into position that we could do something if we had to. So yeah, it’s just reaction.
BL: That’s a pretty amazing experience, from my perspective.
JJ: It is, it’s exciting.
BL: So you said you’re going back onto shore duty now? So what is that, you won’t be out…
JJ: No no no, right now I’m what they call the Damage Control Assistant, I’m basically the fire chief on the ship. So that’s what I’m doing right now, and next year I’m slated to go to shore duty.
BL: So you’re hoping the shore duty could coincide with…
JJ: Well, no, I’m actually hoping they let me go and do this a little earlier than next year.
BL: Okay, I think I got it. Another thing I picked up – honestly, I thought that story had a lot of information in it, and one thing I picked up on was the conversation you had with Oakland’s assistant GM when you told him that you had to leave, you said, “Please don’t forget about me.” Do you feel like they’ve been pretty supportive of this?
JJ: Oh my God, I will go beyond that. Oakland’s organization is one of the best organizations I know. The coaches, the people that they have, they have it right. The whole key to an organization is getting good people in it, and they have that. And you know, for whatever reason, it is a business, but they have been very supportive and understanding of the fact that I can’t really control what’s going on, and I think they know how hard I am willing to work and whatever I need to do I’ll get it done. I’ve been blessed to be with Oakland, and it’s pretty amazing how I got with them too.
BL: Yeah, you weren’t drafted right out of school, but you had a tryout afterward?
JJ: Yeah, I wasn’t drafted out of school, and then I knew somebody that knew somebody that knew a scout, and the scout gave me a tryout. I went and worked out with him and he was like, “We want to sign you.” And I was like, “Where?” And then they wouldn’t let me go right away, and they drafted me the following summer. I was pretty upset after I didn’t get drafted my senior year because they were telling me I was supposed to, and a lot of teams were looking at me, but it didn’t work out then, and maybe it’s better that it didn’t.
BL: So you’ve got 36 games of professional baseball under your belt. If you never played again professionally, would you be able to look back on that and be happy about it, knowing that you couldn’t really control the circumstances but that you at least made it to professional baseball, which not a lot of people can say?
JJ: I kind of have to answer that question in two ways. One, yes, I’m happy for the opportunity to play professional baseball, without a doubt. I’m so glad I got to play for 36 games. Those 36 games, and that entire time, spring training to when I left, was THE best time of my life. I had so much fun, I mean, I’m playing baseball everyday. Yes. On the other side of me, I have to say I always told myself that I wanted to stop playing on my own terms, and I think every player wants to stop playing on their own terms. I feel like I’m still getting better, I’m still improving my game, and I want to be the best player that I can be before I stop playing. Whether I make it to the bigs or not, or if I make it to Double A or High A or whatever and that’s as good as I can get, that’s fine. As long as I was as good as I can be.
BL: Is there anything else that you want to add? I wanted to make sure that if I was going to talk to you that I did justice to it, that I gave you the chance to say what you wanted to say. Was there anything else in closing that you wanted to throw out there that you wanted to set straight or anything that you felt needed to be said?
JJ: Basically I don’t really care what people think. I just don’t like coming across as somebody that’s not grateful for what I’ve been given. I’m grateful for being in the positions I’ve been in, being able to lead sailors in the Navy, some of the best sailors that I’ve seen, and going to one of the most prestigious schools in the nation, in the world, really. I’m not ungrateful for anything. I’m just trying for another opportunity, and I don’t think you can fault me for that. And that opportunity is hopefully going to help the Navy as well. That’s the way I would like people to think about me, if they had to. I just don’t want anybody to think that I’m ungrateful.
Thanks to Jonathan for taking to time to talk with us.