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Baseball: St. Paul's pitcher Steve Johnson has to look no further than his father, a former Oriole, for the right role model.


High School Sports

March 19, 2004|By Pat O'Malley | Pat O'Malley,SUN STAFF

Steve Johnson doesn't remember much about the brief major league career of his father, but is aware of what it took to reach the top.

A chip off the old block? Yes and no.

"I don't remember much about my dad pitching in the big leagues," said Johnson, a junior standout pitcher-hitter who has led St. Paul's to back-to-back Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference titles and is a two-time All-Metro selection.

"I was about 2, 3 years old when my dad was in the big leagues. I do know that he had a lot of heart and that it took him awhile [five years] to get there. He's my hero. He's taught me all the right things, not just mechanics and fundamentals, but how to dress and act as a player."

The younger Johnson is a 6-foot-1, 185-pound right-hander, much bigger and more athletic than his father, who isn't 6 feet. Success also has come faster for Steve, who is 15-2 with four saves over two varsity seasons and has been one of the top hitters for the Crusaders.

"Steve is tremendously coachable, which is a credit to his dad. His teammates have liked him from the first day because he is team-oriented," said St. Paul's coach Paul Bernstorf.

"He's throwing about 89 to 91 mph this spring, has great command of his pitches [fastball, curve, change and cutter] and has always had great presence and poise beyond his age."

Johnson, the first freshman named to The Sun's All-Metro team, also batted .363 with 36 runs scored and 21 RBIs last season.

"At first, it was shocking to a lot of us when he hit so well as a freshman [.350, 32 runs], and then he started mowing down hitters on the mound," said St. Paul's three-year starting catcher Chad Durakis, who was All-Metro last year as a junior and has a scholarship to Maryland.

"He's not the least big-headed and only cares about helping his team. I call the pitches and he rarely shakes me off because he knows I know him so well."

Johnson's prowess as a pitcher and hitter has scouts such as Dean Albany of the Baltimore Orioles saying he could be a rare two-way player at a Division I school.

"Steve could be a prospect as a pitcher or a hitter," said Albany, who coached Johnson and Durakis on his Oriolelaners fall showcase team.

"He swings the bat well and runs good to be an infielder. Nowadays there aren't too many guys who can be two-way players at a major college, but I think he could."

Then, laughing, Albany added, "He's a much better athlete than his dad was."

The elder Johnson graduated from Overlea High School in 1977 and didn't make varsity until his senior year. It wasn't until 1981 that he enrolled at the Community College of Baltimore to pursue his dream of being a major-leaguer.

He played at CCB for coach George Henderson, who is now at Essex CC and led the Red Devils to the junior college World Series in Grand Junction, Colo., in 1982.

Not drafted, Johnson signed as a free agent with Pittsburgh that summer and five years later made it to the big show with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He would later pitch three years with the Baltimore Orioles and Detroit Tigers before retiring.

"I was in my last year with the Tigers and my wife [Tara] was telling me what my kids were doing at home," said Johnson.

"I walked away from it to be with my family. And I could tell early on that Steven had talent, arm strength and good hand-eye coordination to play the game."

Johnson started coaching Steve full time in the summers with the Harford Sox when his son was 11. When it came time for high school, the Johnsons chose St. Paul's over other private schools.

"We met Paul in the summer and really like him and the school," said Dave Johnson. "I think Steve is so fortunate to play for Paul because he knows how to handle kids."

"And I'm thankful to Paul for the way Steve has developed. I'm really proud of how humble Steve is, yet very confident. You look at him after a game and you can't tell if he won or lost."

So, the big question, does Steve want to follow in his father's footsteps?

"Yes, professional baseball is a future goal, but I'm going to take it one step at a time and help my team," said Steve.

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