Posts Tagged ‘Navy’

Bus Leagues Interview: Jonathan Johnston

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?

johnston navyJonathan 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.

johnston kaneJJ: 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.

MLB Draftees From Army, Navy, and Air Force

Some people get Memorial Day off and use it as an opportunity to get outside, go to barbecues, see their families.  I decided to use it as an opportunity to sit on the couch and look up information about players who have been drafted out of the major United States military academies.

This list is almost certainly not complete.  If you want to point out someone that is missing or even just mention someone you know who is serving in the armed forces, please feel free to do so in the comments below.

United States Naval Academy (Annapolis)
Mitch Harris, RHP (2007, 24th round, Atlanta; 2008, 13th round, St. Louis)

Harris emerged as a standout starter in his sophomore year at Navy, finishing 10-3 with a 1.74 ERA and 113 strikeouts in 82.2 innings.  His sophomore-junior year totals: 18-8, 1.95 ERA, 171 innings, 232 strikeouts.  Not too shabby.  Down side: the Navy is requiring him to fulfill his five-year service commitment before joining the Cardinals organization.  Up side: he still gets to play a little ball:

Harris will pitch on a team of military personnel organized for the U.S. Southern Command Baseball Partnership Tour. The club will play exhibition games around South America and the Caribbean, and they will also do humanitarian work and hold baseball clinics for youths. The stops in the monthlong tour include games in Panama, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Chile and elsewhere. In the Dominican Republic, they will play at a major-league campus — the San Diego Padres’. The traveling team’s schedule also calls for a youth baseball clinic at the Padres facility.

Oliver Drake, RHP (2008, 43rd round, Baltimore)

Loopholes are awesome, man:

Drake, who was drafted by the Baltimore Orioles in the 43rd round of Major League Baseball’s First-Year Player Draft in June, withdrew from the academy in Annapolis this week after signing a contract with the Orioles that included a $100,000 signing bonus.

Drake had the option of leaving school early without penalty because midshipmen don’t make their military commitment until the first day of their junior year. Harris had to honor his five-year military commitment because he graduated in May.

Drake has performed well in Baltimore’s minor league system since being drafted, with an ERA under 1.00 out of the bullpen in Rookie and Low A ball last year.  Working primarily as a starter for A-level Delmarva, he has a 1-2 record and 2.82 ERA in eight games.

Jonathan Johnston, C (2007, 42nd round, Oakland)

Extra P profiled Johnston last season when he was told he had to leave his team in Kane County, where he had a .228 batting average in 36 games, to report to his post aboard the USS Peleliu.  Unlike Mitch Harris, he has been unable to consistently keep his skills sharp while continuing to serve his country.

One fascinating thing about Johnston, however, comes from the beginning of a story Yahoo’s Jeff Passan wrote about him last November:

A man speaking broken English cried through the radio. Something about an attack. Shots fired. Grenades launched. Pirates.

Aboard the U.S.S. Peleliu, the officers in charge expected such distress calls. On that day, Aug. 8, the ship was stationed in the Gulf of Aden, a strip of water between Yemen and Somalia known among seafarers as Pirate Alley. The hijacking was 10 miles from the Peleliu, close enough for the ship to send out rescue teams.

Steering one vessel was Jonathan Johnston, a 24-year-old Navy lieutenant junior grade. He maneuvered toward the Gem of Kilakarai, the cargo ship from Singapore under attack by two boats full of Somali pirates. Within minutes, the pirates caved to threats from Johnston’s team and skulked off, toward the horizon. Johnston had commanded a mission that thwarted the attack, an achievement that would earn him the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal. As much as he wanted to rejoice, to remind himself that being an officer in the Navy is about protecting people and saving lives, Johnston couldn’t.

After the hijacking of the Maersk Alabama last month, I found this amazing.  Johnston was, for a time, in the sort of position where he might find himself charged with facing down the same sort of people who carried out that attack.  I wish he could find some peace or pride in the fact that he is able to do a job that very, very few people would be willing to even attempt.  Dude’s a hero.

And here’s the interesting thing, to me: whether Johnston should be talking to the press about his situation or not, whether he should be proud of the work he’s doing or not, the fact remains that he is unhappy and willing to express it.  The Navy’s unwillingness to bend in certain situations, instead applying a unilateral solution to anyone in Johnston’s relatively unique case, is going to bring on more negative publicity than good.  A story on former Army player Nick Hill mentions NBA Hall of Famer David Robinson:

Basketball star David Robinson graduated from the Naval Academy in 1987 and served two years on active duty. Then the Navy set him free three years early to join the NBA on a height-restriction technicality. Robinson being called the “Admiral” throughout his basketball career was a far bigger coup for the Navy than having a 7-foot lieutenant on a ship.

Matthew Foster, LHP (2003, 13th round, Toronto)

Foster played parts of three seasons for the Blue Jays, all at Rookie-level Pulaski, before being released after the 2006 season.  Not entirely sure why the team gave up on him so soon, although the facts that he was a 24-year-old playing Rookie ball and could be wild (12 walks in 22.2 career innings) might have had something to do with it.

United States Military Academy (West Point)
Drew Clothier, RHP (2008, 37th round, Florida)

Clothier appeared in ten games for Jamestown last season, striking out 24 batters in 20 innings.  As of February, he was in basic officer training.

Chris Simmons, C (2008, 41st round, Pittsburgh)

Like Drew Clothier and Cole White, Simmons was drafted and assigned to a team before being called back for active duty.

All West Point cadets are required to serve two years of active duty upon graduation, but 2005’s Alternative Service Option allowed professional athletes to delay this obligation until the conclusion of their playing careers. Earlier this month, however, the Army changed this policy so that cadets interested in pursuing a professional sports career must serve two years of active duty before applying for a release.

Simmons was hitting .257 in nine games when his season ended in July.

Cole White, OF (2008, 42nd round, Pittsburgh)

Simmons’ teammate at State College in the New York-Penn League, White hit .338 in 21 games.  At least he’s taking a positive approach to the situation:

“Two years is a while to be out of the game, but I’m looking at that as a motivator,” said White, who is now 23. “I want to get bigger, stronger and faster, and still be a force when I return. It’s definitely a challenge, and it’s not going to be easy to stay focused, but I plan on sticking with this.”

Nick Hill, LHP (2006, 47th round, Boston; 2007, 7th round, Seattle)

1st. Lt. Nick Hill puts together recruiting packets in the athletic department.

His West Point classmates are searching for roadside bombs and watching for mortar attacks in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The 24-year-old engineer officer is one of the few troops with the skills of a professional athlete. An Army policy aimed at balancing the needs of the individual soldier with the military’s overall goals is allowing him to pursue a baseball career — despite the ongoing conflicts.

For the left-hander with a decent fastball and Double-A experience, it’s both a blessing and a burden.

“To be honest, it’s something I think about every day,” Hill said by telephone after another afternoon workout at West Point in preparation for the 2009 baseball season.

In the mornings, Hill assembles recruiting material for prospective cadet-athletes in his administrative job at the U.S. Military Academy, biding time until he can be a minor league pitcher again for the Seattle Mariners.

He doesn’t need to be reminded that last August, while he was on special leave finishing his second season of professional baseball, his West Point class of 2007 had its first combat casualty. 2nd Lt. Michael Girdano died in Afghanistan one month into his first deployment. He was the 66th and most recent West Point graduate to die in combat since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

“It weighs on me every day,” Hill said.

That’s a long section to quote, but I thought it worth the space to show that these guys aren’t just trying to skip out on their required service.  They want the opportunity to pursue baseball as a profession, sure, but the knowledge that guys they went through school with and knew personally are dying in combat is a reality that they hold close.

Hill’s two-year active duty commitment ended this month.  He has appeared in 18 games for West Tennessee, Seattle’s AA affiliate in the Southern League.  He also played there at the end of last season, appearing in nine games with a 10.13 ERA.  This year’s results are slightly better: 3.18 ERA, 25 strikeouts in 22.2 innings.

Milan Dinga, RHP (2007, 10th round, Los Angeles Angels)

Dinga was the first former Army player to reach the AAA level.  He appeared in one game there, pitching one inning.  Dinga’s on-field progress was impeded first by shoulder trouble, then the Army itself, as he was one of the players told to return to active duty for two years in 2008.

Schuyler Williamson, C (2005, 26th round, Detroit)

Williamson originally took advantage of the opportunity to play professional baseball right out of college, but left the game after a year when he decided he could do more by serving elsewhere:

“I talked to my younger brother, who was in Fallujah [Iraq],” says Williamson. “He just told me some bad stories about leadership and how they failed them. To put it straight up, they weren’t taking care of their men, to the point where they didn’t even go out. They just told them their mission and sent them out there. And that hit home for me. He was my mom and dad’s kid, but he could be any kid – your kid out there fighting. At the very least, I care.”

So he spent 15 months in Baghdad, a platoon leader in charge of 28 men. “I chose the fighting Army over the baseball Army because I wanted to do my part,” says Williamson. “I felt I was needed somewhere else to accomplish a different mission.”

Mike Scioletti, 3B (1998, 43rd round, Chicago White Sox)

As far as I can tell, Scioletti never played professionally after being drafted – under the rules at that time, he would have owed five years of active duty – and there isn’t a whole lot of info out there on his whereabouts since.  If he’s the Mike Scioletti in this story, he’s a captain now, in charge of “Company A, 325th Special Troops Battalion, a unit of the 82nd Airborne Division.”

Air Force Academy
Karl Bolt, 1B (2007, 15th round, Philadelphia)

Bolt started his professional career in the Gulf Coast League in 2007 and moved up to Single-A Lakewood last season.  He has not accumulated any statistics for 2009.

Mike Thiessen, OF (2001, 42nd round, Arizona)

According to some sources, Thiessen was the first Air Force player taken in the draft (Baseball-Reference Bullpen has him as the third).