In June, 2011, the Pittsburgh Pirates chose Gerrit Cole – a pitcher for UCLA – as the first selection in the first-year player draft. Another 1,529 names were called over a three-day period in early June. Meanwhile at a short distance from UCLA, Jonathan Johnson – a four-year starter at second base for Loyola Marymount – waited those three days for news that never game. His name was never called.
Not ready to give up his dream of playing professional baseball, Johnson went the independent league route, first signing with Shreveport-Bossier of the American Association, and then with the Gateway Grizzlies of the Frontier League.
In 2013, during his second season with the Grizzlies, Johnson set a league record by reaching base in 65 straight games to start the season. Yet, his journey remained mired in the Frontier League.
He decided to give it one more try in 2014 with the hope of beginning a climb to the major leagues with an affiliation.
“I was going in telling my fiancée and my family that this most likely was going to be my last season,” said the Lakewood, Calif. native. “So, I guess that last season I went in there not worried about anything, stress free, just out there having fun with the returning teammates and the coaches I’d been playing for the past three years.”
Having proved himself as a reliable on-base percentage machine (his career OBP is .415 in five career seasons), Johnson was finally signed by the New York Mets midway through his season at Gateway.
While the road to get to what he hopes is a major league career has taken a different journey than he had originally hoped,” Johnson said the experience of the previous four seasons in independent leagues were worth it.”
“Going through independent ball is a longer route than most of the people that get drafted out of high school or college,” said Johnson. “I thought, was a good experience for me I learned a lot there. I met a lot of great guys that’d been through affiliate baseball. I heard stories from them. From that point, it was just all stories. Now I just get to live it.’
He put up an underwhelming .238/.394/.307 slash in 39 games with the Savannah Sand Gnats last year and was reassigned to Savannah this season.
Now at 26 – the second oldest position player in the South Atlantic League – Johnson understands that his learning curve may be a bit shorter than normal. Yet, he entered the season with the idea the he could bring something to his teammates, many of who are five to six years younger
“I’ve learned a lot playing from over the years – a lot of the mental side of it, knowing the game inside and out,” said Johnson. “I feel like that’s what I can bring to these younger guys who obviously already have the skill set, but they’re learning the game and knowing the game, that’s the intangibles that hopefully I can pass onto these younger guys.”
Not satisfied with merely being an elder statesman, Johnson has been a big factor in Savannah’s drive to try and capture the SAL’s Southern Division title for the first half. He leads the South Atlantic League with a .333 batting average, a .430 OBP and is second in OPS at .904. Mostly a contact, put the ball in play hitter, Johnson has also added a little pop to his bat. Having slugged over .400 just twice in a season – both coming at Loyola Marymount – Johnson has shown some gap power this year as he has 15 extra-base hits in 188 plate appearances (.474 slugging pct.).
For his work in sparking the Sand Gnats offense as their lead-off man, Johnson was rewarded last week with being named the starting second baseman for the Southern Division at the SAL All-AStar game.
The honor of the all-star selection is a far cry from this point last year when he was within a few months of walking away from the game forever. Johnson credits his support system for their constant encouragement to pursue his dreams, even when it seemed they were going nowhere fast.
“I’ve had a great support group from my friends and family back home,” said Johnson. “No one wanted me to stop. My dad has always been there supporting me. When I told him that it might’ve been my last year, he supported me in that. But I know deep down, he never wanted me to stop.”
Because of that support, Johnson expect that his dad will be the first person called if and when Johnson receives a major league promotion.
“I wouldn’t be here without him,” said Johnson. “He was my coach in Little League, my coach in Pony. He was there in high school. He’s been my biggest coach in my entire career.”