Baltimore Orioles pitcher and St. Paul's School graduate Steve Johnson had a simple message for students at his alma mater on Friday as he returned to his old stomping grounds.
"Don't let anyone ever tell you you're not good enough," Johnson advised students of the St. Paul's middle school as they crammed into the school foyer to meet him. "I was told I'd never get out of rookie ball."
Johnson, who did get out of rookie ball — then pitched this past season with the Orioles, winning his first-ever major league start against the Seattle Mariners on Aug. 8 and finishing with a perfect 4-0 record and a stellar 2.11 ERA — told students that the values of hard work, perseverance and self-confidence relate not only to sports, but all walks of life.
"All it takes is one team, one business that likes what you're doing," he said. "That's what you're playing for — that one team, that one business."
Johnson, Class of 2005 and son of former Orioles pitcher Dave Johnson, made the rounds Nov. 30 to visit with the nearly every aspect of the school.
Even before 8 a.m., he was greeting lower school students as they arrived for the day, many dressed in Orioles jerseys and T-shirts for the school's "orange dress day."
Johnson, 25, addressed an assembly with students in St. Paul's upper school, played kickball with fourth-graders in the school gym, was interviewed by students for the school newspaper and was scheduled to have lunch with members of the Crusaders baseball team.
"It's a lot of fun to come back," he said. "I spent a lot of time here, and it was always awesome."
"There are some new additions, but the place really hasn't changed," Johnson said. "I was in the chapel a while ago talking to the guys. I haven't said the school prayer for a long time, but it came right back to me."
Johnson was on the Brooklandville campus at the invitation of Charley Mitchell, director of Alumni Relations at St. Paul's School.
"We like to bring former students in to help form a bond between alumni and the students," said Mitchell, a 1973 graduate. "It was really nice of Steve to come out and work it into his schedule."
In the meeting with the middle school students — which included a live interview over the school's in-house website — Johnson detailed his career from T-ball to the Orioles. He said that after attending Perry Hall Middle School, his family considered local private schools. They visited several, and said there was "no contest which one was better for me."
"The whole feel of this school was a lot of fun," he said. "You know everybody. I definitely made the right choice."
He said the school's college atmosphere and the camaraderie he felt with fellow and students and players helped him later in his career as he met players and people from all over the world.
He talked of his seasons with the baseball team at St. Paul's — and also had a stint on the basketball team, he noted — and said he faced a tough decision as he approached graduation, whether to accept a baseball contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers out of high school, or accept an athletic scholarship to Boston College. He said it was he type of life choice many students will face throughout their academic and work careers.
"It's tough," he said. "You try to make the right decision; you don't always know that it is the right decision right away. I felt ... I was young enough that if it didn't work out, I could always go back (to attend college)."
He also told students about his minor league days — "I got to see a lot of places" — and said his greatest thrill was being called up to the Orioles and getting his first start, and his first win, exactly 23 years to the day that his father, Dave, got first win in an Orioles uniform.
The elder Johnson was at that Aug. 8 game to watch his son pitch, and the Orioles won, 9-2.
"I'll always have that day to share with him," said Johnson. "It was definitely special."
Brian Connolly, 13, of Towson, raced up to meet Johnson after the talk was done, and said it was great to visit with an alumnus of St. Paul's who is also a professional athlete. Connolly, a seventh-grader who plays ice hockey and volleyball, said he got a sports message out of the talk, but also a message for life.
"He talked about how he was great at baseball, and how you have to work hard to get your goals," he said. "It was really special."