Pitcher Jim Johnson is Orioles' renaissance man

He flies under radar while leading in clubhouse, excelling on field and pursuing college degree

July 21, 2011|By Jeff Zrebiec, The Baltimore Sun

About two weeks after his 2010 season ended, Jim Johnson walked into a classroom at the State College of Florida-Bradenton campus, settled his 6-foot-5, 230-pound frame behind a table, and put his right arm through an entirely different test.

For about two hours, Johnson, wearing a T-shirt, shorts and flip flops, took an exam to complete a written communications course. First, he answered questions, then he penned a short essay.

The presence of a major league pitcher in the room couldn't have mattered less. On this day, Johnson was just like any other student — albeit a 28-year-old one — working toward a college degree.

"I am a little bit older than the normal demographic of that place, so it probably looks a little weird when I'm walking on campus," Johnson said. "But they don't know who I am."

Nor do Johnson's Sarasota, Fla., neighbors, who know him as a husband and father of a 23-month-old girl but have no idea what he does for a living. Nor do many of the people Johnson comes in contact with around his in-season home in Canton, where he dines and walks around unrecognized just a couple of miles away from the stadium he has pitched in for the past four seasons.

Only Brian Roberts and Nick Markakis have been Orioles longer than Johnson, but while their names and numbers adorn jerseys and T-shirts throughout the stands at Camden Yards, Johnson remains a relatively anonymous member of the ballclub. That is despite Johnson's being one of the team's best pitchers and a possible solution to its starting rotation woes.

"I like everything about him. What's not to like?" said Orioles manager Buck Showalter, who acknowledged Wednesday that there is a strong possibly that Johnson, a starter coming up through the minors, will join the rotation by season's end. "Jimmy never trumpets the things that he's doing or his accomplishments. He just does them because they are right. He's not a guy that needs all the recognition. What he needs is the respect of his teammates. He's a baseball player that just happens to be a pitcher, and that's a great compliment. He's a piece of what we're trying to do here."

He also is one of the Orioles' most interesting characters, a fact obscured by his omnipresent game face, gruff exterior and edgy personality, which can challenge teammates and reporters alike.

Before signing with the Orioles, eschewing a scholarship to Georgia Tech and shelving his desire to be an architect or engineer, Johnson was a volunteer fire fighter and a handyman's assistant. Now, he balances his baseball career with being a student, a young father, the organizer of an annual charity golf tournament and a burgeoning contractor who remodeled his own home.

"He gets his hands into a little bit of everything," said Orioles catcher Matt Wieters, who also lives year-round in Sarasota and spends time with Johnson off the field. "If something needs to be built, he's going to try and find a way to build it. Once he gets his mind set on something, he's going to get it done. He's going to try and become as much of an expert as he can in every situation."

'Wake-up call'

Johnson is 5-3 with a 2.64 ERA in 43 appearances this year, and his 58 innings are 52/3 more than any other reliever in the American League had pitched entering Thursday. It has been a nice follow-up to a 2010 season that was challenging for him in between the lines but rewarding outside them.

The big right-hander struggled early, was sent to the minor leagues for the first time since April 2008, then missed more than three months with damage in his right elbow. Admittedly not great with free time, Johnson put his energy toward rehabilitating, spending time with his wife, Elizabeth, and their daughter, Abigail, organizing his golf tournament and going back to school.

"I think it was a wake-up call for him, very honestly," said Gini Johnson, the pitcher's mother. "I think it really made him think about, 'OK, I'm 26 years old, and what would I do if my playing days are over?' It really put a seed in his mind, and it was like: 'You got some time. Let's do it.'"

He was always a good student, so much so that when Orioles scout Jim Howard dropped by the Johnson family's upstate New York home after the club drafted him in the fifth round in 2001 out of Union-Endicott High, it was a courtesy visit more than anything. Howard figured there was no way Johnson would sign. To Howard's surprise, Johnson did, keeping his word.

Even in choosing pro baseball over college, Johnson decided he would eventually get his degree. That plan was further ingrained during countless talks with veteran teammates who had expressed regrets that they didn't do the same.

Johnson started with two classes last fall through the State College of Florida, then took two more during the winter. He plans to complete his liberal arts classes, then transfer his credits to South Florida. He's not sure what he wants to major in, though he has always been interested in engineering and architecture.

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